Whenever an opponent plays a spell and you have a counterspell in hand, you are presented with a decision. A lot of the time, this decision is easy, but when the spell your opponent is playing is card draw or a tutor, it can get much trickier. Sure, you’re probably not going to counter an Opt, but what about Chemister’s Insight? Glimmer of Genius? Precognitive Perception?
My general heuristic for this is that if my opponent is drawing one or two cards (even if it’s a tutor), I tend to let their spell resolve. If they are drawing three or more cards, I tend to counter it. This is in no way a hard rule, however, and there are many factors that should change your decision. Here are some of the important things to keep in mind when deciding if you’re going to counter card drawing:
1. Does Your Counterspell Expire?
As a general rule, the more of a hard counter your counterspell is, the less you want to counter the card drawing. If you have Force Spike, you should probably snap it on a Divination if you can, because your Force Spike will become useless quickly. Spell Pierce and Mana Leak often have the same problem, and even a card like Negate can have it. If you’re playing versus Mono-Blue or Drakes, it’s not uncommon to Negate the Chart a Course, because you just can’t Negate whatever creature they draw from it. In these spots, if your card is instead Counterspell, then you’re probably not going to cast it. It’s also not uncommon to Spell Pierce an Opt or a Discovery // Dispersal in the early game.
2. Can You Counter Whatever They Are Trying to Draw?
To know if you should counter card draw or a tutor, it’s useful to know what is in the opponent’s deck. Normally you’d rather let them draw whatever they are looking for and then counter that, as it wastes more of their mana and you deal with an actual resource, but a lot of the time this isn’t possible. If your Tron opponent casts Ancient Stirrings, then they might get a Tron piece and you certainly won’t be able to counter that. Your Amulet opponent might also have a Cavern of Souls that would make you unable to counter the Primeval Titan they find, which means you have to counter the Summoner’s Pact. Or they might draw into an uncounterable Banefire, or a “when you cast” effect like Hydroid Krasis, or even a flashback spell like Past in Flames that would require two counterspells to deal with. If you believe these things are possible, then you have to strongly consider countering the card drawing.
There’s also a chance your opponent is able to force through their card next turn, but cannot protect their card draw now. Imagine your Esper opponent taps out to cast an end-of-turn Chemister’s Insight against your Mono-Blue deck, and you have a Wizard’s Retort. Normally you wouldn’t want to counter that—it’s better to just counter their Kaya’s Wrath—but if you know or suspect that they have Negate or Absorb and enough mana to play the Kaya’s Wrath and fight for it next turn, you’re better off countering the Insight now and trying to stop them from drawing the Kaya’s Wrath in the first place.
3. Do You Have Time to Counter Whatever They Are Trying to Draw?
This is a subset of the previous point, but I find that it’s even more important (since uncounterable spells are in general pretty rare). The key here is that, even though whatever they end up getting might still be counterable, the game could progress in a way where leaving mana up to counter it will severely harm you. Right now, on the turn they’re casting the card draw, you know you have mana open and you know you have that choice, but in future turns you might want to tap your mana to do something else and then you won’t be able to counter whatever they draw. To analyze this properly, you must map out what you think your turns (and their turns) are going to look like, and see if you’re going to have a window to cast your counterspell.
One of my favorite coverage moments is my Worlds quarterfinals match versus Jonathan Randle.
This is game 5, and Jonathan Randle plays a turn-3 Preordain. I Mana Leak it, and then he goes on to miss his land drop and lose the game. Now, why did I spend a Mana Leak on the Preordain here, instead of saving it for a better card?
Two reasons: First, his land drops led me to believe he would be potentially land-light. But second, and arguably more importantly, I had plays I wanted to make in future turns. I wanted to play a Sea Gate Oracle that was in my hand, and I wanted to be able to play any future Jace, the Mind Sculptors that I drew, so I wouldn’t be able to keep Mana Leak up the entire game, and if I prolong the game too much then Mana Leak is going to be dead. So I figured it was better to counter the Preordain, which would potentially find their Jace or lands to play it, than to save the counter for the Jace itself and not be able to tap out later on.
This play pattern happened a lot with Dragonlord Ojutai in Esper Dragons as well. You knew you were tapping out on turn 5, so you’d be at the mercy of whatever they played that turn. Your game plan, therefore, was to counter things sooner so that they wouldn’t have access to them by turn 5. It happens with Teferi in Standard as well (you’re more likely to counter anything the turn before you’re playing Teferi, as then they will have less to work with the turn you’re exposed), but it doesn’t happen as much because Teferi untaps two lands, so you can often play him and a counterspell in the same turn.
It’s also possible that you have too many counterspells and not enough mana. For example, imagine you’re playing Mono-Blue against Nexus of Fate. You have three Wizard’s Retorts and a Negate in hand, but only 4 mana. Your opponent main phases a Chemister’s Insight. You can go ahead and counter that, because you’re not going to be able to use all of your counterspells in the same turn anyway, so you might as well stop them from developing their game plan while you can afford to.
4. Are You Trying to Exhaust Their Threats?
In control matchups, it’s important to recognize whether the game is about snowballing an early advantage (say, a planeswalker), or if it’s about simply having more answers than your opponent has threats. If it’s the latter, then countering a card draw spell doesn’t make much sense.
Take the somewhat popular but incredibly infuriating Dovin’s Acuity vs. Esper matchup in best-of-one. In this game, the Esper player can theoretically snowball a Teferi and win from there, but the Dovin’s Acuity player has no way of doing that. The Acuity game plan is to exhaust Esper of its relevant cards. Therefore, it’s not actually advancing your game plan to fight over card drawing, since you’re going to have to go through all their cards anyway.
It’s also important to recognize that this can shift during the game. In the Esper mirror, either player can snowball an advantage, but the game can also end up in a spot where threats are going to be exhausted. When considering whether you want to counter their Precognitive Perception, Chemister’s Insight, and even Search for Azcanta, make sure you have a good idea of what the game is going to be about and what each player’s win condition is.
5. What is the “Relevant Cards Density” in Their Deck?
When you let card draw resolve, you’re banking on the fact that your opponent is going to draw, on average, less than one card that you have to counter. If the opponent is looking for something specific, then you’re probably fine with the card draw because they will draw on average fewer than one copy of that card. If most of their deck is relevant cards, however, the situation changes.
Imagine you’re playing against an opponent with a classic draw-burn strategy. They have a couple of cards that deal consistent damage (say, creatures and Experimental Frenzy), and a lot of Lava Spike variants. They play a late-game Divination. If you’re at a stage in the game where you’re just not going to die to burn, then there are not enough relevant cards in their deck to justify countering the Divination. You’re better off countering one of the things that can actually kill you. If you’re on 3 life, however, then suddenly every card in your opponent’s deck is a threat, which means they’re going to draw more than one of them on average. Because of this, you should counter the Divination.
This is obviously a far-fetched example to illustrate the point, but this also manifests in control mirrors pre- and post-sideboard. Pre-board, there are a lot of blanks in both people’s decks: removal spells, Wrath effects, and so on. Someone who is casting an end-of-turn Precognitive Perception is likely to draw into three cards they can’t even use, as there are so few meaningful cards in that matchup.
Now, imagine it’s post-sideboard. Kaya’s Wraths and Cast Downs are replaced by Duresses and Negates. Suddenly, the “relevant cards density” in this deck is a lot higher—your opponent is now likely to draw more than one relevant card with their draw-three, and any of those cards will trade with your counterspell. Because of this, countering the Perception is much better post-sideboard. You can’t follow this rule blindly, but I’d say that “don’t counter the big card drawing game 1, counter it game 2” is a good heuristic.
6. Can They Beat You if the Card Drawing Doesn’t Resolve?
Sometimes your opponent needs more cards than they have, which means they literally can’t win if their card drawing doesn’t resolve, so you counter it and get that over with. For example, imagine your opponent is in a spot where they have 10 mana and two cards in hand. The only way they can win is to cast two Moment of Craving this turn. Otherwise, they are dead. If they cast Chemister’s Insight, you should just counter it. If their Chemister’s Insight doesn’t resolve, they can’t win. If you do let it resolve, they’ll end up with 6 mana and three cards in hand, and those could be either three Moment of Craving or two Moment of Craving and a Negate, and then you’re going to look foolish. It’s very unlikely that this happens, of course, but if that’s literally their only way to win, you should play around it by countering the card draw.
Remember that each situation is unique, but, as a general rule, you should counter their card drawing if:
- You can’t counter whatever it is they’re drawing.
- You have plans for your mana in the future and keeping mana up would harm you.
- Your counterspells are situational or about to expire.
- Their deck has a high density of cards that matter.
- They need multiple cards to win.
You should not counter their card drawing if:
- Your counterspells are hard counters.
- It’s not a problem for you to leave open mana and counter something in future turns.
- Their deck has a low density of cards that matter.
- You’re going to have to deal with all of their threats anyway.