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The impenetrable wall of countermagic...
By Stephen O. Bahl
...and why it is actually quite penetrable.

Of all the obstacles confronting casual players, the one that I hear the most about is countermagic. Newer players (and even veterans) often find their decks blockaded by cards that can simply say, “no.” One question I’ve seen/heard numerous times during conversation and on internet message boards is the desperate “how do I beat countermagic?”

It is my intention to answer that question with this article. But first, we’ll identify the major culprits…

Force of Will 3UU
Instant
You may pay 1 life and remove a blue card in your hand from the game rather than pay Force of Will’s mana cost.
Counter target spell.

Your worst enemy. The best blue control decks will have four of these just waiting to counter whatever you so desperately want to play. If you have never gone up against Force of Will, consider yourself lucky. If you have, you understand just how powerful this card is.

Counterspell UU
Instant
Counter target spell.

This is one of the oldest, and still one of the best. It has caused more pain and suffering than even Force of Will. As long as your opponents can find two blue mana, they have an effective answer to almost any card in the game.

Mana Leak 1U
Instant
Counter target spell unless its controller pays 3.

Mana Leak gives you more of a chance than Counterspell, because it is not what is sometimes called a “hard counter.” It will only counter your spell if you cannot meet some requirement (in this case, paying additional mana). However, in most cases, it is just as much of a barrier as Counterspell. And it works quite well in two or even three-color decks.

Memory Lapse 1U
Instant
Counter target spell. If you do, put it on top of its owner’s library instead of into that player’s graveyard.

Newer players tend to scoff at Memory Lapse because it doesn’t actually get rid of the countered spell. Memory Lapse can actually be more annoying than other countermagic, since it generates tempo loss (forcing you to play the same spell twice) and card disadvantage (replacing one of your draws with a card you already drew) for its victims. It tends to have a specialized role, such as being put on an Isochron Scepter.

Force Spike U
Instant
Counter target spell unless its controller pays 1.

Not as difficult to play around as Mana Leak, but Force Spike makes up for that with a lower mana cost of its own. If your evil blue opponent is playing first, there’s a good chance that your amazing one-drop will not see play, thanks to Force Spike.

Daze 1U
Instant
You may return an Island you control to its owner’s hand rather than pay Daze’s mana cost.
Counter target spell unless its controller pays 1.

Daze is as versatile as Force Spike. It is still quite affordable at 1U, but can also be played without mana for only a minor loss of tempo. When used in the same deck as Force of Will, there’s no telling if your spell will go through or not, even when your opponent is tapped out.

Forbid 1UU
Instant
Buyback—Discard two cards. (You may discard two cards in addition to any other costs as you play this spell. If you do, put Forbid into your hand instead of your graveyard as part of its resolution.)
Counter target spell.

Discarding two cards is a steep price for reusing a counter, but it can be well worth it for your opponent, especially with blue’s card advantage engines.

Rewind 2UU
Instant
Counter target spell, then untap up to four lands.

Four mana is pushing the envelope when it comes to efficiency in hard counters, but Rewind can make up for it by giving your opponent all of that mana back. That’s right, you play something, your opponent Rewinds it and gets to untap four lands, you play something else, your opponent Counterspells it. Not fun.

These are some of the most commonly used counters. There are others you might come across, like Power Sink, Foil, Dismiss, and Dissipate. Also, watch out for cards which don’t actually counter spells, but which can still ruin their effects, like Stifle (which counters activated or triggered abilities) and Misdirection (which changes the targets of spells). Before we move on, I feel that I should mention one counter you hopefully don’t run into in casual games. It was only ever printed in Legends (a very old set) and takes a lot of money or luck to obtain these days.

Mana Drain UU
Instant
Counter target spell. At the beginning of your next main phase, add X to your mana pool, where X is that spell’s converted mana cost.

There are various ways to fight around other counters, but Mana Drain is pure evil. Hopefully, you will never have to play against this card. Good luck if you do, because you’ll need it. Seriously, in the hands of a skilled player, Mana Drain will say, “no” and then give the evil blue player a sizeable mana boost to work with. It is strictly superior to Counterspell, and is easily a contender for the most powerful control card of all time.

We’ve seen the enemy, now for the methods of dealing with it. These vary, depending on the type of deck that you are using. The most obvious answers are “hoser” cards, which will attack something vital to your opponent’s strategy. Some such cards include Boil, Red Elemental Blast/Pyroblast, Burnout, Tsunami, Seedtime, and Urza’s Rage. Many casual players (myself included) are averse to maindecking such cards, and in casual formats, sideboarding is not often an option.

To beat countermagic, you must either have your own disruption, or have a deck that is resilient to disruption. What colors your deck is will certainly help to establish the available cardpool for this.

White: They can’t counter everything you play. You usually can’t counter anything they play, but there are other ways of dealing with things. Even the most counter-heavy blue decks rely on permanents of some sort. Between Disenchant and Swords to Plowshares, you have a way of hitting just about any weapon they can throw at you. Mother of Runes can fight creature-bouncing effects if she resolves (and she is a one-drop). Blue will need card-advantage in order to beat you consistently. If your opponent uses a card-advantage engine that relies on a permanent, then kill that permanent. Also, if you can resolve Land Tax, you’ll have your own form of card-advantage. Abeyance or Orim’s Chant are nice for combating countermagic. If you gain control and have Armageddon, you can probably win the game should it resolve. White can generally form a better creature army than blue, although Morphling is not at all fun to deal with. If you are using Parfait (Land Tax/Scroll Rack control) or a Winter Orb prison deck, then you should have an advantage against counter-heavy blue decks. For WW (White Weenie), Mother of Runes and Swords to Plowshares are key. Lastly, if you can use Balance, it absolutely cripples the blue player.

Blue: I am only including this section because aggro or combo decks that are monoblue or blue-heavy do not use the same principles as the blue control decks that we are competing against. If you play one of these, you can obviously not out-counter blue control. You are going to have to face the fact that some of your spells will be countered. Keep casting though. Blue control will beat you if it can counter spells on a regular basis and maintain card-advantage. The key to beating it will be to either eliminate that card-advantage or to get your own spells through. If you have Waterfront Bouncer or some other creature-bouncing effect, you can attempt to keep creature superiority and attack the control player to death. Save your Force of Wills for cards that will matter. For example, if your opponent casts Fact or Fiction, and you Mana Leak it while holding a Force of Will, then you will be safe from the powerful card-drawer unless your opponent holds two Force of Wills (unlikely). If you are playing combo, attempt to resolve your combo components, whatever the cost.

Black: Black’s greatest weapon against blue control is discard. Duress will tear that pesky Force of Will from your opponent’s hand. Hymn to Tourach will either eat counter or eat two random cards. Hypnotic Specter is something the blue player must deal with immediately. Even if blue can counter your best creatures, it will be hard-pressed to your creature-destruction spells. Always use a Diabolic Edict-type effect, as blue can muster some strong untargetables. If you can eliminate blue’s ability to block, Phyrexian Negator is a quick way to end things. On top of all this, black has some bombs that can wreck even resilient blue decks if they resolve. Most notably, there are Mind Twist, Pox, Necropotence, and Yawgmoth’s Bargain. In some cases, you can even punish blue control for drawing cards (something that hurts it a lot). Cheap offensive spells and mana acceleration combine to give you all the weapons you need to beat countermagic.

Red: To beat blue control you are going to need fast damage. Of course, if sideboarding is involved, that should help you more than it helps your opponent, but without sideboarding, this can be tough. Your biggest strength is that most any red deck is significantly faster than blue control (a slow archetype against an almost universally fast one). Typically, you will be trying to ignore countermagic and kill the control player as quickly as possible. Efficient attackers and burn spells make this possible. If blue wants to beat you, it will need more than countermagic, it will need obstacles in order to survive. These tend to be things like Propaganda or untargetable blockers. If you are playing a more controlling red deck, resolving something that can hurt blue a lot will be important, so be sure to cast your Manabarbs or whatever as early as possible. Some useful cards against blue are Mogg Fanatic (guaranteed to deal damage if it resolves), Jackal Pup (a good attacker), Seal of Fire (you can save it for when you need it without having to worry about counters, unlike Shock), Flame Rift (who cares how much damage you take?), Fireblast (the finishing blow), Cursed Scroll (recurring source of colorless damage that can be played early on), Black Vise (blue control wants a big hand, but Black Vise punishes just that), and Pyrokinesis (free removal is a good thing).

Green: If blue control is a casual anathema, then green is a casual favorite. Green players, especially the less experienced ones (that was a horrible joke, wasn’t it?) find it difficult to beat blue control simply because a few well-placed counters can ruin their plans. Let’s not forget that green has some good maindeck ways of fighting back. Remember how Disenchant is a useful disruptive mechanism for white? Since Onslaught, green has had its own version—Naturalize. And there’s no reason not to use it. And like black, green has mana acceleration that can allow it to outrace blue’s attempts to seize control of the game. More than any other color, green can drop big creatures quickly or turn a small one into a heavy-hitter. Token generators, especially the flashback token generators from Odyssey block, are usually more resilient to counters than ordinary creatures. However, tokens are easy to kill with bounce spells, which blue tends to use a lot. Still, unless blue can produce some serious card advantage or mana acceleration, it will make seizing control difficult. Bounce spells can be annoying, but you are often able to fight through the tempo loss moreso than the blue player can fight through card disadvantage (untrue with Capsize, but that only works in the late game). Using cards like Wall of Roots and Elvish Spirit Guide are great in such situations. Untargetable creatures are also great. If you drop a second Blastoderm (quite possible with green’s mana acceleration), blue control must either counter it or face some serious damage. It is pertinent to have more creatures in play than your opponent here (elves are great for this). If you attack an opponent who is tapped out or has no bounce spells left, they might be able to manage a counter or two, but that won’t deal with your unblocked, Rancored, Briar Shielded, Scent of Ivied, Giant Growthed, Bounty of the Hunted creature. Do be careful with such cards when there is the possibility of your creature being bounced. Slower green decks might appreciate Sylvan Library and even the fast ones might want Wall of Blossoms. Masticore can be a real problem, but blue control will typically favor Morphling (which is more dangerous to white or black control decks than Masticore is, but less potent against the green horde). If your green deck is land-destruction oriented, Gigapede and Argothian Wurm are both excellent creatures that blue must counter (and they’re already having trouble dealing with your land destruction spells). Some other options for green decks include Eternal Witness/Regrowth, which can force blue control to waste a counter and Fastbond/Exploration, which can give you much more mana production than any blue deck.

To summarize these points:

White-pack your own removal and use it wisely. Gain board control and keep it.
Blue-use your own counters carefully and protect your deck’s strategy.
Black-discard and mana acceleration. A little creature removal is handy too.
Red-outrace them and run four copies of Fireblast.
Green-use mana acceleration and creatures that are resilient to removal.

Of course, many decks are polychromatic. The color(s) of your deck will determine your cardpool, but the final decision on how you want to fight counters should only be made after taking into account the strategy of your deck. Covering all the different casual archetypes would be impossible (especially in one article). Some decks need very specific answers for dealing with counters (and if that is the case, there are always the CPA forums where such questions are welcome). However, the following general approaches to dealing with counters will cover the basics.

Aggro: You cannot beat blue in a war of disruption. The longer the game goes, the less chance you have of winning. On the flip side, you have a faster deck. Recklessness regarding your life total would be apt here, and your focus should be entirely on your opponent’s life total and whatever gets between it and your cards. If you have creature removal, use it on whatever is saving your opponent from the most damage. Beware bounce spells, especially if you are using spells that enhance the power of your creatures. If you need to use a red X spell, why not make it Kaervek’s Torch? If you want to use creature enchantments, Rancor should be at the top of that list. Get your creatures on the board as early as possible. Don’t be afraid to cast a spell just because it might get countered (unless it is absolutely vital that it doesn’t). It might be wise to bait counters with less important spells first, but that depends on the specifics, so use caution.

Control: You are probably going to have a harder time than aggro. The more turns that go by, the better things are for your opponent. A more proactive approach than you would take against something like an aggro deck is certainly in order. What you definitely want to do is resolve and protect the cards that will give you control. Blue cannot counter every spell you play, and each one you resolve should be something useful. This isn’t multiplayer. If you waste the precious windows of opportunity to play things like Feldon’s Cane, you are going to die. The same amount of mana can be used to play something like Goblin Welder. You don’t need to prevent blue from playing a single thing. That’s what it is trying to do to you. You only need to have control for long enough to play something lethal. It can be difficult to tell which order to play your spells in. The route to beating blue can be different for each control deck. One characteristic they all seem to share is that you be using more threats than your opponent can counter. This might seem simple, but it is often forgotten. Whether through mana acceleration, card advantage, cards with resiliency to disruption, tempo, recursion, or just plain brokenness, control decks must have a way to fight through the counters and (eventually) resolve a win condition. Do not let them sit on counters.

Aggro-control: Aggro-control must utilize much the same gameplan as control. More emphasis is placed on protecting threats. For example, if I am able to drop a land and a Lotus Petal first turn, and tap both to play Crystalline Sliver, blue is probably going to need either Force of Will or Force Spike in order to counter it (and I might have my own Force of Will). Now any uncountered slivers will be impervious to targeted bounce spells (and some other stuff) and I am establishing a solid path to victory. Aggro-control doesn’t need to win the game as early as aggro does, but you’re going to need to make an impact in those early turns. Fast mana helps here. The blue player is going to need to draw some extra cards in this match. If your aggro-control deck has counters of its own, this can be the perfect time to use them. If such an opportunity doesn’t readily present itself, or if you don’t have your own counters, it is best to use your disruption to clear the way for your own threats. You can outrace them, like aggro, or you can exhaust them and hit them before they can recover, like control. It would be a rare occurrence to do both. An important skill is the ability to tell which one to try, based on your opening hand. You might not have a chance to change your mind later.

Combo: Like aggro, you have speed. Unlike aggro, a single counter can very easily ruin your ability to win at all. But also, you can win quite suddenly. Certain cards are your friends and these friends are just as willing to help you against blue control as in any other matchup, perhaps moreso. Duress gives you a peak at the blue player’s hand and lets you remove a pesky counter (Force of Will is a common choice). Xantid Swarm can give you the ability to play your combo uninterrupted, provided the skies are clear of flying blockers. Abeyance (and Orim’s Chant) can also grant you such safety. City of Solitude is another good friend when playing against blue control. Some combo decks can give blue control a taste of its own medicine with Force of Will. These cards can seal your victory in the early game, but they do not make you invincible. After enough turns elapse, your ability to win becomes almost nonexistent. Maintaining a balance between speed of your combo and its stability can be difficult, but it is necessary if you want to win (which you do). Some combo decks simply don’t possess the resiliency needed to fight through even a single counter. There is a reason other people are not playing those decks. No matter how viable they might be otherwise, playing a deck that loses if the opponent has Force of Will is simply a bad idea. You should not do it.

Mirror match: I have never actually met a player who needed help fighting through counters while piloting a blue control deck. What happens (as is the case with most mirror matches) is that the better player wins by outplaying the opponent or the better deck wins (because it is the better deck, after all). Usually both of these happen (the better deck is piloted by the better player, who wins). However, I decided to include this section in the article, because of one note from my personal experience (having played this mirror match before). One card that has helped me to dominate the mirror match (to some extent, at least, but it really has won me games) is Thawing Glaciers. If you have it, and your opponent does not, in such a slow match, it will most definitely have an effect.

Prison: Here are the decks that can actually afford to play drawn out games against blue control. Of course, the ones they win are the ones where they either form a lockdown, or a partial lockdown early on. Beating blue control is pretty straightforward, since you do what you always do. It will either work or it will fail. You can tweak your decklist, but unless you are doing something horribly wrong, most of your plays should be obvious enough. Should you play Winter Orb and cripple blue’s mana production? Should you play Sphere of Resistance and make all of those pretty counters cost more? Should you play Isochron Scepter as early as you can? Yes, you should. As with any deck, if you don’t cast spells in order to not have them countered, you’re only buying blue control more time (something the blue player will like a lot).

There are sundry methods for beating counters, but there are even more mistakes that you can make. So, to conclude, don’t…

-Pass the turn because you are afraid of having your spells countered.
-Attempt to outcounter decks that are based heavily in countering spells.
-Split a Fact or Fiction in piles of five and zero.
-Play with copious amounts of spells with large mana costs.
-Play decks that curl up and die against a single counter (The Fluctuator comes to mind).
-Sacrifice your huge army of creatures to make your Phyrexian Ghoul a 25/25, and then watch it get Boomeranged.
-Play tons of nonbasic lands against blue control decks that are maindecking Back to Basics.
-Play decks with no one-drops.
-Play slow decks with no card-advantage engine.

And above all, learn from your mistakes (that way you will hopefully avoid making the same ones over and over).

Read More Articles by Stephen O. Bahl!

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