Pattern Recognition #136 - Counters

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


9 January 2020


Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.

And so for this week, I will talk about Counters. No, not about those that I talked about last week. Rather today I talk about the more obvious answer to the unasked question of 'Which counters is berryjon talking about'?

Today, I'm going to talk about the core of 's identity, the one thing that they only let out of their grasp in the direst of circumstances - or when it's Planar Chaos. Something that is so tightly woven into that you can't really separate the two.

What is it?

Well, assuming you skipped the title of the article, it's...


Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls of all ages, strap yourselves in, because I'm about to explain why this card is so powerful, why its effects show up in every set despite this, and why itis never going to go away.

Countermagic has existed in the game since the very beginning, being the 9th Blue card in the game alphabetically. Though we have to remember that it wasn't the only counter-spell in the game even in Limited Edition Alpha. Blue Elemental Blast, Power Sink and Spell Blast all occurred in , while got Deathgrip while got the counterpoint in Lifeforce. Oh, and got Red Elemental Blast.

"But berryjon!" I hear you all crying out, "Didn't you just say that only got Counterspells?"

Well, yes, and let me explain something here. You see, those other counterspells were part of the very early game's system of colour hate and colour denial. opposed while and were opposed as well. This is all part and parcel of the color pie, and is not something we can forget even today. These early instances of Counterspells should be seen today as aberrations, Magic finding its footing in what can and cannot work. And in this case, the answer became clear - even more so as time went on.

Counter magic is .

It has to be.

You see, the reason for this is at the same time simple, complex and profound. I've seen Mark Rosewater himself try to explain this, only to have his explanation fall flat, so I take up my keyboard to try and fill in the gaps of why this is.

At it's core, cannot destroy. Yes, I know about Pongify, let me get back to that in a few moments. 's fundamental weakness is that it cannot point at something and say "You're gone." It has no Creeping Mold, no Vraska's Contempt, not Wrath of God, no Worldfire. Heck, even gets into the act with cards like Universal Solvent. One something is on the battlefield, cannot put it into the graveyard. With the caveat of course, of creatures in combat.

Once something enters the battlefield, if wants to deal with it, to remove it from the battlefield, it can only do so in a temporary manner. It can Unsummon creatures, it can Capsize anything, it can even have creatures do that like with Temporal Adept.

With permanents on the battlefield, seeks to Delay the inevitable. It can't remove something permanently, so all it can do is put it back into the opponent's hand, or if they're lucky, back into their library.

Now, I mentioned earlier that I wanted to talk about Pongify. Now, this isn't something new to the game, though it is in its expression. You see, and here is the crux of a lot of people's misunderstandings, it is that while cannot destroy, it can change.

Ever since Alpha, has been the colour of taking one thing and making it into another. Sometimes it's through imitation, like Clone or Copy Artifact. But sometimes, the colour just straight up says "You? You're this thing now."

Allow me to introduce you all to one of 's under-appreciated weapons. A tool in its arsenal that comes so very close to the verboten line of Land Destruction that Wizards has pulled back and tried to put it back in its box. But I remember it. I remember Phantasmal Terrain.

You look at it, and you read the card. At first, you think it's mana denial. You change that land into something it's not, effectively making it for that player. You think about multi-coloured decks that run a lot of multi-coloured lands, and how this can screw them over by turning their Tundra into a Forest. Then, if you're old like me, you remember Islandhome and the Landwalk mechanic.

And thats when this card gets nasty.

So, Pongify is the same thing. It takes a thing - in this case, any creature - and turns it into a 3/3 Ape.

Now, yes, I know that the spell says to Destroy and not regenerate the creature. But that's just how the card text worked at the time, where the phrasing on cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns's +1 had not been realized. If Pongify were made anew in this day and age, it wouldn't destroy the creature at all. It would just change it outright.

Now I just wish for Serendib Sorcerer to be reprinted. That would be nice.

But how does all this play into the existence of Counterspell and its ilk? Well, the answer to that lay in how does attack their opponents. I've long since established that 's creatures are pathetic for the most card, over far overcosted for what they do in terms of combat.

does not attack the hand. That's the realm of with their discard effects. can attack the library, as Milling is a solid, though minor part of the colour, shared a little bit with .

Yet, I've also shown that can't really attack the board state either in the ways that everyone else can? But then, where does that leave to attack?

The answer is The Stack.

The single true avenue of attack for is the Stack. Here, it interacts with spells that are not in the hand and are not yet on the battlefield in order to inch its way to victory. For it is in the cards that have no board presence that finds its supremacy.

Here is where Counterspells exist. Once on the stack, spells are at their most vulnerable, and simply saying "No" is the best offense they have. Wrath of God? "No." Ill-Gotten Gains? "No." Carnage Tyrant? "N... OK, that one goes through."

Counterspelling is 's attack, but it is a fine balance between too much and too little. Wizards has seen this in the past, where control decks - decks that are reliant on many counter-spells and the ilk and only a few ways to actually close out the game are dominating to the point of suffocations.

For you see, after years of checking and trying things, it was finally determined that the first and best of these spells, Counterspell itself was too good. That an unconditional counter at was too much, while putting it at was not enough. So Wizards started tweaking the formula. They would put conditions on the Counterspell, like only on Creatures, or only on non-Creatures. Gainsay is an example of colour-restrictions in counterspells.

And when the cost goes up, you get additional benefits. Dissolve lets you Scry, while Disallow expands the list of things you can counter to abilities. Sometimes, set mechanics are added to a counterspell, such as with how Hypnotic Sprite has an Adventure of Mesmeric Glare. And I'm sure that Theros: Beyond Death will have a counterspell or two in it, something even tied to the Escape mechanic!

Oh wow, a Counterspell that you can cast from your graveyard. Of course Wizards would print something like that. Of course, seeing as how I'm writing this while spoilers are still going on, there is still time for Wizards and I to come to an agreement on what that sort of spell would cost, and if there are any limitations put on it.

This is why Counters exist. They serve a unique purpose to give an avenue by which they can proactively interact with their opponent, so much so that and occasionally break out cards that can't be countered, such as the aformentioned Carnage Tyrant or my favourite - Demonfire.

Now, when I was late in pre-writing this article, I asked my friendly neighborhood Spike what he thought the best counterspells were - after Counterspell and Force of Will. His response was instant. "Force of Negation and Pact of Negation." It took me a moment to figure out what they had in common. "You had to choose the free ones, didn't you?"

"Of course," he replied. "Free spells are good! Free Counterspells are better."

Well, he is a Spike for a reason.

But this does let me segue into another small descriptor. You see, there are three different types of counterspell, each with their relative pros and cons.

The first and most important - also the one that my friendly Spike all listed - is the unconditional Counterspell. These are spells that say "Counter target Spell", with no ifs, ands or buts about it. This spell resolves, the target is off the stack. Now, these tend to come with upsides partly because a 'balanced' unconditional counter costs somewhere between and , and that's pretty quick, but unconditional counters are great places to benefits and thereby increase the cost of the card.

For example, I mentioned Dissolve earlier as an example of a simple unconditional with a simple rider. But then you also get cards like Didn't Say Please or Counterbore which really kills a card dead if it resolves. Or Last Word which in of itself can't be countered.

Unconditional counterspells are powerful, and tend to be costed accordingly, if only to give people the chance to play cards before the wall comes down.

Next are conditional. These are spells that counter a spell if certain conditions are met. For example, Blue Elemental Blast is concerned with the condition of the target's colour. Nix is absolutely hilarious when it goes off, punishing a player for cheating a spell onto the stack. And Gainsay with the greatest flavour text ever and works because Urza, Lord High Artificer is .

But because of the conditions placed on the target of the spell, limiting what it can and cannot target, the spells tend to be cheaper than the equivalent unconditional spell. Disdainful Stroke is like Negate in that way. Both can still affect broad bands of cards, but they each have glaring holes in what they can hit that causes the cost for either of them to drop down to . And the most narrow of target bands can reduce the cost to !

Lastly, we have the taxing counterspell. These counter a spell unless someone does something to prevent it. The most common method is simply forcing a player to pay more mana into a spell, such as with Rakshasa's Disdain, or the classic Force Spike. Or even the new Whirlwind Denial, which counters everything on the stack for good measure. Man, I'd hate to run into that when running my Syr Konrad deck.

These cards are less about preventing a spell from being cast - though they do a great job of that when the opponent has tapped out, but rather they are more about limiting resources. Sure, your opponent can pay to keep the spell, but what if that's mana they were planning on spending on something else this turn? You force them into a choice about whether or not they want to keep this spell, or save the resources for later in the turn.

That's the real beauty of taxing counters.

Of course, sometimes counters go past that and do silly things. Grip of Amnesia laughs at graveyard decks and makes them really make the hard decisions. Dash Hopes isn't , but paying that five life can mean the difference between defeat and victory. Different resources tailored for different spells and different archtypes to play against.

Counterspells are a vital part of 's took box, and they cannot be taken away. Yes, more and more get added each set, but for the most part the number of them stays constant in a Standard cycle, while Pioneer has yet to settle on the best ones (from my observation) and Modern swore by Mental Misstep before it got banned. Of course, I would like to see more reprints. Dissolve is safe enough for what it does that it could go into a Core Set without too much issue.

Of course, there are people who think that any counterspelling is too much, but yet it is still one of the few ways in which can get rid of something. It's just another obstacle you have to work around, either by smart playing in drawing out the counters to allow you to play what you really want to resolve or by admitting that it's going to happen and playing anyways.

But I think that's all for my explanation of counterspells. I hope you enjoyed it! I will return again next week with a pseudo-followup to my defense of Mercadian Masques. Because, you see, there is a set that even I cannot defend. And no, it's not New Phyrexia.

So, until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #135 - Counters The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #137 - The Short Life and Longer Death of Oko

Boza says... #1

Wait, I just read an article on ... I see it! Counterspells and the stack are what really define Magic as a game and I am glad they are part of the game.

January 10, 2020 7:51 a.m.

Coward_Token says... #2

Re: graveyard counterspell: Fervent Denial has flashback, while Disciple of the Ring can "graveyard spellshape" a taxing counter

January 13, 2020 11:57 a.m.

GrandpasMagic says... #3

I am a firm believer that Counter Magic was never supposed to exist. I think it was added at the last minute due to some cry baby. Counter Magic should not be used! It does NOT help the fun of the game at all. BAN ALL COUNTER MAGIC in all formats!!

January 15, 2020 3:29 p.m.

Tzefick says... #4

I think counter magic is perfectly fine as a concept. It's a way to deal with issues, before they actually become an issue and it examplifies one of blue's main weaknesses: Difficulty in dealing with the board. I used to hate counterspells when I got into Magic again (during Lorwyn, damn Faeries), as they simply seem like a disability to play the game; "I want to play something." - "You may not". I have since accepted their place in the game and their importance.

The reason I still do dislike counter magic is because it exists to provide a strength to cover a weakness. A weakness that since then has been partially filled out by strong answers to the board over the course of Magic's history. One of the main offenders is Cyclonic Rift , especially present in Commander and other multiplayer formats that are significantly slower than Duel Magic (1 on 1). Other offenders are cards that really should be enchantments, but opted for a more nefarious although simpler route: Curse of the Swine and Reality Shift , and their predecessors; Pongify and Rapid Hybridization .

As said by Berry in the article; Blue has the ability to change something from one thing to another. We have also seen various types of such polymorphing done in enchantment form; Darksteel Mutation , Lignify , Frogify . All of this makes perfect sense in what blue is capable of doing.

However doing a change irreversibly like the Curse of the Swine or Reality Shift, is giving hard answers to a color whose weakness is hard answers - at least on the board. Yeah, you replace them with a creature, but a much weaker creature and if a token, one you can permanently remove by having it change zone.

Another issue with counter magic is the tempo shift. The opponent casts a 5 mana spell, you cast a 2-3 mana counter spell. Suddenly there's a disparity of 2-3 mana in the counterspeller's favor. It is mainly equalized because the blue player must have ready mana, resulting in that player not developing their own board state. However that can again be offset by utilizing instant speed spells or abilities that either advance board state or card draw for the blue player.

If the blue player didn't have these chances to apply disparity in mana spent and benefit, the color would struggle to have meaningful strengths, I know that. However the issue is in finding the fine line between how much mana disparity is acceptable. The cat is out of the bag on this one, as there have already been printed numerous versions of unconditional counterspells that have set a precedent for what blue counterspells are allowed to do and how cheaply.

If you compare a counterspell to a destroy spell, the main difference is obviously zone of application and also timing of application. One proactive, one reactive (well actually both are reactive, but you probably know why I have to make a distinction). Reactive spells provide a lot more flexibility in when you're required to use them. Their main problem is that sometimes reactive spells are too late to cause the same mana disparity that a counterspell does. As soon as that permanent hits the battlefield, an ability may come into effect, be it triggered, static or active. A reactive spell cannot avoid that.

Also take into account that blue can deal with any spell in existence, with the possible exception of spells with Split Second, specifically designed to be uninteractive - and still they can be interacted with . If there's a spell that is uncounterable, you can get creative with Venser, Shaper Savant , Time Stop , Mindbreak Trap , Ashiok's Erasure , there's load of ways to get around "uncounterable". Blue is also the color that will straight up see a threat on the board and simply take it for themselves, with Control Magic , Gather Specimens , Blatant Thievery , Expropriate . Effectively a removal, card draw and threat all in one.

No other color can boast the same catch all mechanic. White comes close for something in the same ballpark, but it is still just a bleak imitation - as countermagic goes. And evidently look at that price tag.

In the earlier days of Magic, blue was not the only user of countermagic. I feel like you could provide other colors with more conditional types of countermagic, to better even it out. And not just anti countermagic like Guttural Response . Blue would still be the best, but not the sole user. - White is a color that protects itself, so something like Hindering Light is the most likely avenue to take White Countermagic, anything that touches my stuff - go away. Think Equinox in terms of templating but not necessarily that specific. Giving their spells on the stack protection from a color or supertype or plain "old" Hexproof. - Green already has an affinity to provide hexproof to their stuff, Heroic Intervention and Veil of Summer , so expanding on that seems reasonable. - Red could go the Fork / Shunt route but is unlikely to get countermagic that straight up nullifies other types of spells than spells with targets. - Black is kinda difficult. The usual is just to tack an alternative payment of life, cards or permanents on an otherwise Blue card. Black already have an indirect proactive answer through selective discard, like Duress . The issue is these are all sorcery speed, so if an opponent suddenly starts drawing a lot of cards, it can be difficult for black to be proactive in time. So perhaps just providing Duress at instant speed through a condition would be acceptable. Something like "Instant Duress may be cast as an instant if an opponent has drawn two or more cards this turn." / "Instant Duress may be cast as an instant if the target opponent has 5 or more cards in hand". Any kind of variation on that.

Of course some would talk about color pie bleeding/breaking, but ain't that already happening by giving blue hard removal (by proxy) and large scale soft board removal? I know some of these issues are mainly aimed at multiplayer formats, but we cannot ignore that Magic has grown to be something else than only Duel Magic (1 on 1). Blue's counter magic is here to stay, but is it too much to ask that the other colors can get even slightly in on the action if not directly, then indirectly by interacting more with the stack?

Green has one of the best palettes available to them for a slightly slower format; mana ramp, card draw, large threats, ability to scale well, protective measures, explosive finishers and a hell lot of combo potential and pieces.

I think Green is only beaten slightly by Black in terms of Commander due to tutors in a singleton format. And because Black can cheat mana costs or pays differently, has access to card draw and good finishers, along many more combo pieces.

Blue is one of the only colors that reliably can stop combo or finishers dead in their tracks. Reversibly, they are the color best suited to keep those combos or finishers uninterrupted. They have the best access to card advantage and resource manipulation. And extra turns.

There's a reason that many cEDH decks are mainly some variation of Sultai colors (Green, black and blue) with maybe one added color or full WUBRG. I think this picture would be more diverse, if more colors became able to interact better. The ability to interact is one of the core foundations and strengths of Magic. Counter magic is a pillar of this interaction, more colors should find a way to do it or something similar.

January 20, 2020 11:44 a.m.

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