As a player who preferentially fights my way through Cryptic Commands and Riptide Lab engines rather than playing them myself, it’s with some measure of relief that I look forward to the pending rotation that will move the former out of Standard and the latter out of Extended. Focusing on Standard for the moment, I’m happy to watch pretty much the entire Faeries engine leave the format. Lingering on that thought a little longer, I started to wonder if there were enough decent counterspells to actually have players piloting countermagic-oriented control builds in the foreseeable future.
I have some deck-design-related ulterior motives at work here, of course.
To answer that question, I culled a list of available counterspells from Shards, M10, and the officially spoiled portion of Zendikar, and then considered the quality and efficacy of those counterspells. Click through to the extended entry for the list of cards and commentary. And, of course, spoilers.
Essence Scatter – A 2-4 of, depending on the circumstances. Highly efficient, and half of the “good stuff at two mana” duo.
Flashfreeze – A good sideboard card. Use will depend on environment.
Negate – The other half of the GSATM duo, and a more solid contender than the following counterspell.
Countersquall – This “Negate plus” seems unlikely to see heavy play. It’s in-color for control decks, but it’s harder to cast than Negate and few decks really want to be running more than four copies of Negate, barring some frankly warped combo-oriented environment where a creature is never an issue.
Hindering Light – I don’t see this jumping out into real play, either.
Bant Charm – This is a solid option if Bant becomes a fashionable color combination, as it offers the versatility of being both removal and an answer in a counter war. That said, if its utility as a counterspell is contingent on other people playing counterspells, that’s not so exciting.
Cancel – The new and not-so-loved standard for “Counter target spell.” It has seen play in the past outside of Block (in early Lorwyn Standard, for example) and could show up again, even if people wish they had a more efficient counter.
Double Negative – A solid counterspell in what is likely to be a cascade-laden environment. Red is not a bad call for a control deck these days (hey, you still want to top out at Cruel Ultimatum, right?), and the ability to nullify the aggressive deck’s card advantage is great.
Soul Manipulation – The other solid counterspell at the three slot. The Soul Manipulation – Architects of Will interaction is a potential staple for a certain variety of control deck in the upcoming Standard season, even without evoke creatures to return for added value.
Spell Snip – I’ve never loved the various three-mana Force Spikes.
Mindbreak Trap – This is actually a very good counterspell for the impending Standard environment. It’s minimally a four-mana, single-color Double Negative that, as a bonus, Exiles the spells it’s countering. On top of that, you have the possibility of just wrecking some of the more exciting cascade chains. I think this will be a four-of in any truly countermagic-oriented deck.
Offering to Asha – Hm. Hard to say. This saw some play in Block, and a double Mana Leak for the cost of two Mana Leaks, with life gain tacked on, may be okay…but surely we can do better at four mana?
Punish Ignorance – This does not constitute “doing better at four mana.” The life loss and gain is okay, but is nothing special.
Traumatic Visions – A solid performer that, as many have noted already, does everything a control deck would ever want to do, drawing cards (and fixing mana!) in the early game and countering spells in the late game.
With the loss of Broken Ambitions, counterspell-oriented decks have lost their most generic tempo-devouring early game tool, with no current replacement (caveat – over a hundred cards left to go in Zendikar!). More to the point, though, the beating that is Cryptic Command, as well as the afore-mentioned Faerie engine, have both left with no clear replacement.
If we return to the survey above and yank out only the “real” counterspells, we have this:
2s: Essence Scatter, Negate
3s: Cancel, Double Negative, Soul Manipulation
4s: Mindbreak Trap, Offering to Asha, Punish Ignorance
5s: Traumatic Visions
There’s a lot of room there for fast aggro (say, Lotus Cobra and friends) to make it in before the counterwall can be properly engineered.
If we look at earlier counterspell-oriented control decks, such as Jushi Blue from Worlds 2005 or Trisketron from Worlds 2006, we see that both benefited from important early-game counterspells such as Mana Leak, Remand, Spell Snare, and Disrupting Shoal.
Naturally, counterwall is not the only way to use counterspells in control builds. As we’ve seen with recent 5CC builds, including in Block at Honolulu, it often works to play the part of on-board control deck until the late game, when countermagic can be used to maintain your advantage and deflect haymaker kill spells that are aimed at your face. Assuming the available array of counterspells does not expand to yield better early tempo-disrupting options, this is looking like the likely direction for use of counterspells in the near future.
What do you think? Anyone out there planning on trying to put together a counterwall in the new Standard?