Form Follows Function: Counterspells
A 19th century architect coined the famous phase, “Form Follows Function”. I doubt he played magic, but his maxim holds true regardless. The cards that you include in your list should only make the cut if they play a part in helping accomplish the goal of your deck. Take a look at some of the most famous decks in magic history. Why does Lands not play Wrath of God? Why is Show and Tell strong in Reanimator but not Death and Taxes. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is one of the best cards ever printed but he doesn’t even make the cut in a Delver list. During the deckbuilding process, these decks were sculpted to accomplish their intended purpose as efficiently as possible and those cards do not move them towards that goal.
One of the most attractive aspects of PDH is that deck building process. While a deck in a 60-card format might play a grand total of 15 to 20 unique cards, a singleton format forces you to find 99 disparate lands and spells to fill out your list. Baring a straight net-deck, no two persons’ lists will ever end up the same. Sure, each color has a handful of cards that might be considered “auto-includes”, but most of the list will be the result of personal and extensive research into long forgotten commons. Deck building, as much as game play, will determine a person’s chance of winning a match in PDH.
There is a lot that goes into deck building, and I do not want to go get into it all at the moment. Today I would like to discuss one small aspect of that beautiful process: choosing your counter magic. If you are playing blue, odds are that counterspells are going to play a role in your strategy. But you have some questions to answer: “How many counters should you run?”, “What are you trying to accomplish with your counters?”, and ultimately “Which counterspells should you include in your list?”.
If we were playing Legacy, the answer would be provided to us for the most part. Start with your 4 Force of Wills and then include some Dazes or Counterspells depending on what deck you are playing. In most formats, your choices are limited to a handful of options at best. In PDH it is a different story. There are many viable options, each slightly different and serving a specific purpose. In this article I want to walk through some of the decision-making process when it comes to counter magic and discuss the best options depending on what your deck is trying to accomplish.
But before we get anywhere, you need to know what your deck is trying to do. You as the designer need to think about how you want the game to play out. Do you want to win as fast as possible? Are you trying to build up a board presence? Do you want to control the flow of the game and win later on? Knowing your game plan is important because it impacts your card choices.
I am going to spend some time below discussing some of the major archetypes. Not all decks fit neatly into these bins, but the thought process that is outlined can be applied to any deck. And not just for picking counterspells, you should be thinking in this manor about each and every card you are running.
If you haven’t figured it out yet from my lengthy dissertation on counter magic, I am a control player. In my ideal turn, I don’t play anything. For me, nothing feels better than sitting with 2 untapped blue lands during an opponent’s main phase. Control is the archetype most associated with counters.
If you are building a control deck, you know you want counters, but which ones? To answer this question, we must look at how a control deck plays the game. In an ideal game, the control player gets to two mana before their opponent plays anything, giving them the most options for how to deal with each spell they cast. Since they do not intend to win the game for some time, they must be able to deal with a wide verity of threats from turn two until the late stages of the game.
Your counters should reflect that game plan. If it is your second turn on the draw and you need to deal with your opponent’s three-cost threat, you cannot do so with Cancel. This is the main reason that 3 CMC generic counterspells are significantly weaker than a two-cost variant. Even if the two cost counterspell has a drawback like Deprive or Miscalculation, it is almost always easier to have two extra mana available rather than three. The flexibility that low-cost counters offers is a huge deal.
In a similar vein, you are going to want to keep countering things well into the late stages of the game. While cards like Mana Leak are strong early on, they are weaker when both players have a large amount of mana. A deck designer will have to carefully consider whether the flexibility of Mana Leak overcomes its weakness later on. Conversely, Preemptive Strike is less flexible but as a hard counter it maintains its potency throughout the game.
You also need to think about what you want to counter. For control decks that means asking, “What do I lose to?”. If you look at the meta game and know that you are going to see a large number of creature-based strategies, your counter magic suit should reflect that. Cards like Nullify and Essence Scatter will serve you better than Negate. I believe that the PDH metagame is largely creature based. Since all cards are commons, large game winning sorcery spells are rare. Even most of the combo decks rely on a creature component. I think that counterspells which can’t target creatures are at a large disadvantage in such an environment.
If you look at the list of counters below you will notice I have included three CMC cards. I just said two turns ago that I thought three cost counters were bad and here we are talking about Soul Manipulation and Exclude. But there is a reason for that, they turn a one-for-one exchange into a two-for-one. They generate card advantage. In a format where you have to rely on sub par card draw and don’t have access to a draw X spell, the control player needs every bit of decent card advantage they can find.
While we are at it, let’s talk about Muddle the Mixture. PDH does not have access to many good tutors. In control, this means that you must search for answers mainly via card draw. Muddle the Mixture is a three-mana tutor that can also serve as a counterspell in certain situations. This versatility makes it a very attractive card for most blue decks. I would consider it to be an almost auto include in most decks.
So, with all that said, here is my list of the top ten, or so, counterspells for a control strategy:
3.) Logic Knot
A Blue+X combo deck can take a few forms. There is the combo-control deck who wants to play like a control deck and then win with combo later. And then there is the true combo deck that just wants to find the combo pieces as fast as possible so they can win the game. The combo-control deck is going to make most of its card choices in a similar manner to the true control deck. However, the combo deck is going to be interested in a very different set of cards.
Your goal as the combo deck’s pilot is to A.) Find your combo pieces and B.) Protect your combo pieces while you win the game. This means that you have less of an interest in what your opponent is doing and more interest in what you are doing. Your counterspells will reflect that. This deck will probably not care to run cards which counter a creature spell such as Remove Soul. They would much rather play cards like Negate or Muddle the Mixture that can protect their combo pieces from instant speed threats.
Another interesting thing about protecting a combo is that you intend for the game to end that turn. This means that you don’t really care about the downside of a card like Arcane Denial, Memory Lapse or Deprive if you use it while comboing off.
Knowing that the counters are being included in the deck to protect the combo also informs you of when you would like to play them. While Mana Leak is a great card in most decks, it doesn’t shine on turn 8 when both players should have plenty of mana available. You want to play Mana Leak on turns 2-5 when the opponent doesn’t have the ability to pay the tax. If your combo is going to happen later than that, the usefulness of the card diminishes.
Additionally, you know that you intend to hold up counter while executing your combo. This means that for every additional mana the counter costs, you have to wait one more turn to combo off. Therefore, a counter like Rewind might not be as effective in your combo deck as it would be in a draw-go style control deck.
There is also the question of how many counters to play. If you are a combo deck you will want to have a counter available the turn you combo, but you will not likely need more than one or two in any given game. One needs only dip their toe into statistics to figure out the odds of seeing a specific card if X cards are seen. For instance, if you are on the play and you want an 80% chance to see at least one counterspell by turn 8 and you only draw one card a turn, you need to include 10 counters in your deck. If there were only 5 counters in the deck, the odds would only be 54%. (this assumes I did the math correctly :p)
So given all that was discussed above, I have prepared a list of the most appropriate counterspells for combo decks in my opinion.
Top Ten Counterspells for Combo Decks:
9.) Flash Counter
7.) Arcane Denial
6.) Memory Lapse
4.) Logic Knot
Midrange/Aggro/Voltron and anything that plays creatures……
While blue based swarm decks are rare, Voltron decks are less so. A Voltron deck intends to play one creature (typically the commander) that they can buff into a lethal threat. In a similar way to combo decks, Voltron doesn’t really care what the other player does, so long as it does not affect their one big creature. Typically, the Voltron creature has some form of evasion, so blockers are not even a true concern and Nullify and friends are not needed.
What is a concern for Voltron decks is removal. If the creature doesn’t have protection of some kind, every removal spell is a threat to your winning the game. During deck construction, you are going to have to dedicate card slots to protection. Some of those slots will likely go to Countermagic. The typical auto-include counters will likely make the cut, but there might also be room for some more deck specific selections. For instance, since your counterspells have been included in order to protect one creature, you can take advantage of the under costed or cantriping counters such as Confound, Intervene and Turn Aside. Typically, these spells are too narrow to be worth inclusion, but in this specific case they do exactly what you need them to do.
If your commander has Hexproof, general removal may not be a threat but board wipes and edicts are still a concern. Instead of playing cards like Intervene, you may consider Wizard Replica or Spiketrail Drakeling. Not only can the counter relevant spells throughout the game, they also can serve as a shield against a Chainer’s Edict in a pinch. In a recent podcast, Magic Lead Designer Mark Rosewater discusses the psychological effect a visible counterspell has on a player. Many players will slow down their game play to avoid losing a valuable spell to a Wizard Replica. Instead of trading an early spell for the wizard, they will wait until turn 4 to play their two-drop. This in turn, allows you a few more turns attacking with commander damage unhindered. If all of this sounds a little hokey, the traditional counters, such as Negate and Counterspell, will also get the job done.
A Voltron deck needs protection when the commander is cast and every turn following. This means that if your commander is relatively low costed, your opponent will be trying to deal with them starting on turn three or four. At such an early point in the game, cards like Miscalculation and Mana Leak can be quite effective. As you will notice below, I have also included Spell Syphon on the list. Although it is rarely used, it may be a valid option for Voltron. Spell Syphon is playable at X=2 and it is good if X=3+. If you are playing a large number of blue enchantments in the deck and your general is blue also, chances are high that when you cast the card it will be at least equal to Mana Leak if not better.
Midrange decks typically fall into other parts of the color pie but some could contain blue. A midrange deck tries to play as a creature-based control deck against aggressive decks and as an aggressive deck against control decks. They typically rely on efficient 3 mana to 6 mana creatures to win the game. Traditionally, counterspells do not play a large role in midrange decks, but that isn’t to say they couldn’t. If counters are going to be included in a midrange deck the designer will need to determine what purpose they will serve. Are counters needed to handle aggressive decks or are they there to protect your threat from removal. If the counters are needed to stave off aggressive decks and other midrange decks, you will want to focus on Essence Scatter and friends. If you want to include counters to protect your creatures, then the other cards discussed in this section will serve you well. Ultimately, your choice should be deck specific and there is no universal “right answer”.
Now would probably be a good time to discus Miscalculation. On the surface, the card looks like a crappy Mana Leak, but it actually has some uses. Early in the game your opponent is likely to nearly tap out every turn, so the “tax” of two mana vs. three mana is not that big of a deal. Later on, when the card begins to be weaker, it can replace itself for two. This flexibility doesn’t make it the best counterspell on the list, but it is playable in many decks.
Scatter Arc is another unique inclusion. I typically am against many 3 CMC counters and most 4 CMC counters, but the card advantage is nothing to sneeze at. If it were going to be played in any deck, this is the place it would best fit. You will have to decide whether 4 CMC is too high a price for the cantrip.
Without further ado, here is the list of the top counters for Aggro and Voltron:
10.) Scatter Arc
7.) Mana Leak
Tempo decks eschew card advantage in favor of board presence. The goal of a tempo deck is to keep the opponent’s spells in his hand while whittling their life total away. After all, card advantage means nothing if your dead. While tempo decks are very common in most constructed formats (think delver in pauper), they are less so in PDH. I believe that the main reason for this is the life total. Holding someone at bay while you dome them for 20 is one thing but doing the same thing for 50% longer is more of a challenge. There is also the problem of consistency and threat density with a singleton deck. However, as we learned from the River Hoopoe deck tech, there are some out there.
Counterspells are a critical component of a tempo deck. They do exactly what your deck is trying to accomplish; keep your opponent from doing anything meaningful while you burn them down. Again, your counters should reflect your game plan. Counters should be low costed since they are meant to be played in the early game. There shouldn’t be a late game if things go according to plan. This means Exclude and Soul Manipulation are out. Mana Leak and Miscalculation shine in the early game and are good inclusions for the Fish deck.
This deck doesn’t mind certain downsides on its counters, especially where it relates to card disadvantage. For instance, Arcane Denial and Memory Lapse are at home here since you are trying to stall your opponent while you develop a board presence.
And finally, here is the top ten-ish tempo list of counterspells:
4.) Memory Lapse
3.) Arcane Denial
2.) Logic Knot
Hopefully, this article got you thinking about your personal decks. Have you looked at each card and asked yourself if it is the best inclusion in that spot. Do you know what your deck is trying to do? Are your card choices supporting that goal? There are not published tournament results for PDH and there is not consensus on the best way to build any one deck or even what the best deck is. You are on your own in unexplored territory. You are charting the way and designing this thing from scratch. Take pride in your deck and work hard on it. After all, deck building is one of the most attractive aspects of the format.
Thanks for reading. This is one of the first articles I have done and I am looking forward to your feedback. Thank you for being my guinea pigs.