Saying no is easy. Anyone can do it. My parents did it for years. But knowing when to say no is a skill not many people have, especially in relation to Magic, so my aim – as always – is to do something about that today. Using a specific spell-set: Counter spells.
So what reasoning should you use when countering spells? I often watch players hastily using the only Mana Leak in their hand to counter something that I disagree with and I’ve also seen players do the complete opposite and not counter something they really should do. So after much thinking and deliberating I have come up with a few guidelines to run through before you pull that metaphorical trigger.
What else is in your hand?
Counter magic is the poster boy of Blue and the bane of most opponents existance but it’s also far more skill intensive than people would have you believe and is more dependant on the other cards in your hands than you may realise. The single biggest mistake most Blue players make is to snap a counter spell onto the table without even looking at the cards in their hand first. This is especially true when countering creatures. You see, countering a spell is not the only way to answer everything. Often you have a perfectly good way to deal with whatever threat your opponent is trying to resolve sitting in your hand, its just next to the counter spell.
For example, why counter a creature when you have a Day of Judgement in your hand and the ability to cast it the next turn? Why stop Go for the Throat on your Consecrated Sphinx when you have another one in your hand? Sure, there may be instances where doing both those things I mentioned may be viable plays but my point is that you need to look at the cards in your hand BEFORE commiting to countering the spell as it won’t always be necessary to do so.
Counter spells are quite precious and need to be viewed as a last resort rather than a first port of call. Afterall, Blue is a colour of options and the hardest skill in relation to playing Blue is to recognise all the options available rather than the most obvious ones. It could be that you don’t need to counter a creature because you can make a creature yourself next turn that trumps your opponents. It could be that you have a removal spell like Condemn or Dismember in your hand to deal with a Baneslayer Angel. It could also be about my next point.
Whats the current Board state?
The first thing I do when my opponent plays anything – be it a creature, Planeswalker or spell – is look down at the board. If you have a massive board position and you’re opponent is on the back foot, game wise, then why counter? What do you gain that you haven’t already got? Unless it’s something that affects that board position you’ll just be wasting your one way to answer something that truly swings the game back into your opponents favour. Lets look at an example of what I mean:
What if your opponent is trying to resolve Gideon Jura with nothing else but land in play and the creatures you control will kill the Gideon next turn? You have to ask yourself WHY that Gideon is being played, last week I was talking about looking round the corner for what might be coming next and this is a perfect example of using that skill. Here the answer is simple, your opponent is trying to buy time in order to draw a mass-removal spell like Day of Judgment. If you have enough power on the board to kill the Gideon why waste the one thing in your hand that will stop him casting that Day of Judgement? If you have a good board position the chances are the pressure is on your opponent and that, in all likelihood, you have time on your side. Your opponent does not. He needs to draw an answer quickly or he will lose. In this instance the Gideon is a quick fix and not an answer. It buys him a turn and not salvation.
The most important thing to realise about counter spells is that they are NOT there to make you stop your opponent doing what they want, they are in fact a measure put in your deck to stop you from losing the game or to maintain your advantage over the opponent. Yes, that does entail stopping the opponent doing what they want but I mean that you need to use your countermagic to stop things that kill you there and then or severly damage your chances of winning. You can also use them to gain something;
This is mostly relevant in two situations: 1 Whilst playing an Aggro-Control deck and 2 in a Control vs Control match (also known as the ‘Mirror’). Gaining tempo means that you rob your opponent of a resource and then lay your own threat. The best example of this in relation to counter spells is Spell Pierce in, now-dead-because-of-banning, Caw-Blade. Spell Pierce was a popular choice because it allowed you to do something very devastating on your turn 3 if your opponent went first. Because of its mana cost it allowed you to counter your opponents 4th turn Jace, The Mind Sculptor and still activate Stoneforge Mystics ability to play your Batterskull afterward. This is particularly powerful if you were to untap, attack and then make your own copy of the Blue Planeswalker.
See what that example illustrates? You stopped your opponent having a particularly potent, game winning device and installed your own either immediately or on your next turn. That way your opponent goes from applying pressure to being under pressure. Tempo countering is best used early game, which is why I say it is mostly used in Aggro-Control decks. Aggro-Control decks use counter magic to ensure their advanced board position over the opponent which, in turn, leads to victory. It’s sometimes relevant when opposing Control decks have Planeswalker battles, where the opponent wishes to resolve a Planeswalker and you attempt to stop them so that you may resolve one of your own – albeit the same Planeswalker or a different one.
Essentially using counter spells to gain tempo is about taking away your opponents means of putting you under pressure, either board position wise or, even, spell wise and then doing something that immediately puts the game a little further out of your opponents reach and applies a good amount of pressure to them. You don’t always have to make a creature the next turn, you could cast Memoricide and take away one of their main threats. You could make Venser the Sojourner and start gaining card advantage. The options are all there, as I said, you just need to see them.
And finally, the biggest problem with Countering Guidelines.
There are always exceptions to the rules. ALWAYS. Discard spells, such as Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek pose particular problems when it comes down to whether or not to counter. The main problem is that a lot of the time you’re just doing what your opponent wants, namely getting rid of your only counter spell so that they can resolve whatever threat they wish to resolve. My only advice here is to look at the cards in your hand that the discard spell would target and to consider whether or not they need protecting. For instance, there’s no point stopping an opponents Despise if the only card it would target would be a Birds of Paradise. I admit giving your opponent the golden knowledge of exactly what you are holding in hand is a major disadvantage but sometimes said information may scare them off doing what they had planned depending on the strength of your hand.
Bare in mind that all the standard rules for countering still exist, i.e if it kills you there and then counter it there and then, but always remember to look at your hand, look at the board state and to ask yourself what your options could be, what you would gain from countering the spell and what you would lose by NOT countering the spell before tapping your land and revealing the card. Like I said earlier, countermagic is there to stop you from losing or to maintain your advantage over the opponent, to protect your assets if they are in short supply and as an option in a list of many. They are not there to ‘counter what ever my opponent plays if I have the mana open’ .
That’s it from me this week. Join me next week when I’ll talking about, or in some cases introducing you to, the most important cards in your deck – Your Sideboard.
Until then, take care and keep sharing.
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