Counterspells – A Little Bit of Arrogance Goes a Long Way by Paul Mclachlan

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I had started out playing Magic on – what I imagine – is a different trajectory from most. I initially played awful casual decks against my friend’s awful casual decks. We smashed them against each other for hours when we weren’t subtly implying that the other was a homosexual, throwing dice across the table or tinkering with little pewter figures. We continued on in this vein for some time, picking up and dropping the game over the course of many years. It all came to a head during Mirrodin. I was playing the standard pile of junk featuring Lightning Coils and Coretappers. My friend? He had netdecked Arcbound Ravager Affinity.

Magic soon became a game I really didn’t want to play. Instead I moved onto VS, the now defunct super-hero card game from Upperdeck. VS was a highly competitive game designed by a number of ex-Magic Pro Tour players and future hall of famers. It was intricate and complicated. When comparing Magic to VS I often say that Magic is an art, but VS was a science. I played as competitively as I was allowed to, travelling to draft and play in tournaments. Then VS just keeled over and died. It didn’t put up much of a fight.

By this time I was hooked on competition and needed a fix. A great deal of the friends I had made playing VS moved on to Magic, and I followed begrudgingly, images of Arcbound Ravager still burned into my cerebrum. I borrowed some cards and played in my first constructed event, a Scottish Nationals qualifier. It was the first time I can remember having countermagic cast against me. I was frustrated. Just let my god-damn Watchwolf resolve!

I played decks for about a year that can be summarised as “Small men and pictures of fire”. I even used to write out my deck lists as such and scored an interview with Rich Hagon based of this fact. I had some small measure of success with this strategy, qualifying for the first unified British Nationals with Ravnica era Zoo. This was back in the days when people were just figuring out that Tarmogoyf was a good card. It was a long time ago now. The next PTQ format was slated to be Time Spiral block constructed and I knew I would be playing something aggresive, something with Tarmogoyf in it.

I can remember vividly the first time I fell in love with countering spells. It’s odd for me, becuase I’m not usually the sort of person who remembers those little “firsts“. I can’t remember what the first rare in the first pack I cracked was. I can’t remember who the first girl I kissed was. I guess they just weren’t that meaningful to me. Counters were different. Yes, countering spells was more important than my first kiss. I’ve made peace with this.

We were testing for the block PTQ season and I was playing blue green aggro control with Mystic Snakes and Cancels against the big bad of the format: Mystical Teachings control. My opponent tried to cast a Damnation and I tapped some mana and said: “Nope. Mystic Snake that.” Since then I’ve been hooked. I just fell head over heels in love with saying no. I imagine this is the way all the women I attempt to chat-up feel. Or maybe this is the excuse that I make up to not feel so bad about my sub-standard social skills and “Damn, Igor, you’ve let yourself go” physique.

Since that time I’ve played blue decks in 90% of the constructed events I’ve attended, only taking time off during the heydays of Jund to play other, poorer colours. Although, having said that, I did play that awful LSV deck with the full boat of main deck Flashfreezes for a tournament or two…

The biggest mistake that I see players making is just trying to counterspell everything their opponent throws at them. The hardest skill to master when piloting a counterspell deck is to objectively assess the game state and work out what you should counter. It’s pretty obvious when you have two creatures on the table and are beating down a control deck that you should Mana Leak that Day of Judgment. That end of turn draw spell on the other hand? It depends.That’s a skill that comes with time.

There is a mental state that you need to attain to play counterspells effectively. I used to be more into the nonsense psychology that floats around the fringes of Magic theory, and it was important for my development as a player. I’d heard from someone on the interweb that they didn’t eat before a tournament, so that they were hungry for the game. They were trying to tap into the more primal, hunter-gatherer side of their nature. Not eating was like a cheat code to them. I could see the logic behind this at the time. Now that I’m older and, well, I guess just older, I think it’s silly. You’re just tricking yourself, but you’re tricking yourself into the correct way of thinking. So… swings and roundabouts. You should eat the morning of a tournament by the way, just as an aside, it’s a long day.

I digress.

Back to my point. I took this theory and did the reverse. During the time I was playing my first proper draw-go deck (Time Spiral/Lorwyn Faeries). I figured I was the control deck. This was my game. I had inevitability on my side. If the game progressed for a large number of turns, my superior cards would eventually overpower my opponent’s. The aggro deck was out to steal my game. They could try, but this is why we’re packing Doom Blade and Mana Leak. We’ve got to stop the peasants from revolting and unseating the landed gentry somehow.

You have to have a little bit of arrogance inside you to be able to play counter spells effectively. A smidgen of contempt. If you can’t know that what you’re opponent is doing is meaningless and choose not to react to it you will lose. I have never played a counter-spell deck like the classic Cueneo Blue deck that was one point five million counter-spells, one point five million lands and one threat. I’m old, but I’m not that old. I’m from the modern era where we considered Broken Ambitions to be a passable spell. Counterspells are not the majority of your deck – even in Faeries you only have twelve, sixteen if you count Scion of Oona occasionally blanking a removal spell. You simply can’t afford to counter everything. You have to be able to ration your counter magic for the spells that will truly affect the game state.

This is the reason it’s difficult to play Control decks effectively. It’s not enough to let a creature resolve because you have a removal spell in your hand. You have to be able to let that creature resolve because you have removal for it in your deck. You should only be caring it the creature puts you on a short clock or has a contexually powerful ability. Most decks in modern (not Modern) Magic that will run counterspells and attempt to control the game will be packing more removal than counters, so keep your permission. You don’t want to have your opponent cast a Cruel Ultimatum and be staring at a Doom Blade because you Mana Leaked their random guy.

That example leads me onto the other key skill that you’ll gain from tapping mana and saying no: patience. Patience is the biggest part of control mirrors. Both of you are playing with powerful, but high cost spells, that have a massive effect on the game state. You are also both playing cheap and effective counter magic and removal that can make tapping out dangerous. In these situations you need to be patient, and you need to work out what matters.

A great story that illustrates this point is often repeated by my mate Gerry. This is the netdecked Arcbound Ravager guy from further up. He was playing Five Colour Control at Nationals a few years back and was playing the mirror in the 2-0 bracket. The game had progressed to the stage where he and his opponent both had a good number of lands in play. Gerry was presiding over ten, his opponent nine. Let’s disregard that Gerry is already ahead in the match-up due to having made his land drops more consistently (Maybe he was just on the play?) and move on to the matter in hand.

Gerry taps three of his mana to evoke a Mulldrifter – the equivalent of casting Divination for the newer players out there. His opponent taps out to Broken Ambitions the ‘Drifter for eight. Gerry shrugs, lets his card draw go to the graveyard and casts an unopposed Cruel Ultimatum. For those unfamiliar with Cruel Ultimatum: I draw three, you discard three, you lose five life, I gain five life, I raise dead a creature (Hi, Mulldrifer!), you have to sacrifice a creature, I put two pennies over your eyes and you slip peacefully into the afterlife. By incorrectly assigning value to Gerry drawing two cards so late in the game, his opponent got blown out and went on to lose. They’ve also had this story told about how crap a play this is approximately one point two billion times.

(Entirely Optional Rant: Get some new Magic stories, Gerry. We can’t hear how you mulliganed to four against Raphael Levy at Pro Tour Hollywood and still won again. And while we’re on the subject of Pro Tour Hollywood, where was my shout-out for teaching you how to play Faeries properly? Hagon asked you who you tested with after all. Big dufus.)

Realising that you have to focus on what matters is the easy part. Working out what matters to you is where it gets difficult. It will come with hard won experience, but it will come.

Good luck,

Paul Mclachlan


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