Spell Pierce | Illustration by Vance Kovacs
I’m sure we’ve all been there: you’re playing against that one annoying deck that just doesn’t seem to draw anything but more counterspells. You can’t resolve any spells, and your opponent seems to have you dead to rights. It’s a rough time all round, but is there something you could have done differently? Odds are, there is.
In my work at a local store I see a lot of newer players come across these decks and not know what they could do differently. I try to offer advice on the matter, and I’ve got some tips on the different ways that you play and build your deck to play better against counterspells. Today I’m going to do my best to simply answer a few questions that come up.
Let’s get into it!
How Do You Beat Counterspells in MTG?
Thrun, Breaker of Silence | Illustration of Simon Dominic
There are a variety of strategies you can employ to beat counterspells, like using discard spells or instant-speed threats. Some of these strategies also work against removal spells in lots of cases. Either way you’ll be able to protect your threats and potentially win more games.
Some of these are very much dependent on the colors you’re playing, so those may or may not apply to you. I’ll do my best to cover as many bases as possible so that you can find something that suits you best. I’ll generally try to stick to card examples that are currently legal in Standard, but you should be able to find other cards that are better suited for the format you play.
Let’s start with the most obvious strategy.
Play Uncounterable Threats
It might be obvious, but in lots of ways just playing uncounterable threats is the easiest way to do things. Playing Thrun, Breaker of Silence or Tyrranax Rex is often enough to win the game against counterspell-heavy decks.
These creatures are often resilient to removal spells, making them very difficult to deal with for any deck. There are currently 68 uncounterable spells, many of which are very powerful threats that can win games.
But I suppose you didn’t need me to tell you to play uncounterable spells to get around counterspells, so let’s try something more interesting.
Play Discard Spells
Duress is a card that I firmly believe should always be legal in Standard. And thanks to frequent reprints, it often is.
The main reason I believe this is that it’s particularly good against counterspells and control decks in general. You can use a Duress to clear the way for the spell you really want to resolve thanks to how cheap it is. Often an opponent may even spend their counterspell on the discard spell to conceal the rest of their hand, but you still end up with a window to resolve something else if that taps them out.
This is the main reason that cards like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are format staples across the spectrum of competitive Magic formats.
Play Your Own Counterspells for Backup
Again, this might be a particularly obvious point to make, but cheap counters like Spell Pierce and Veil of Summer are designed with countering other counterspells in mind. You can have these in your deck specifically to hold up yourself so that you have a backup to protect big spells from potential interference when you go to cast them.
Combo decks in older formats often play cards like Force of Will particularly to protect their combos and will wait for the most opportune moment to go for their combo and win.
Play Instant-Speed Spells
Hypothetical scenario: your opponent leaves three mana open for a counterspell. What do they do when you cast a powerful spell on their end step, like Memory Deluge or The Wandering Emperor?
Odds are they’ll counter any spell that’s strong enough. But if they do that then they’ll be tapped out on your turn, allowing you to resolve any spells you want, potentially even something more powerful than your previous spells. This is one of the many reasons why things like The Wandering Emperor are as good as they are.
Timing Your Spells
It’s important to know when to time your spells. Even something as simple as making sure to save your instants for times when your opponent doesn’t have mana open can pay dividends. If you need to kill a particular creature with an instant, it might be best to do so on your turn instead of waiting.
Here’s a quick, general guide for instant-speed removal:
- If your opponent is tapped out and has no cards in hand, you should probably just kill something right away.
- If your opponent has mana up, it’s probably best to wait until your opponent’s turn.
- If casting removal on your opponent’s turn, remember you can do so on their upkeep when they have fewer cards in hand.
The biggest advantage if you do cast your spell on your opponent’s turn is that, even if they have a counterspell for it, they’ve used their mana on their turn. If you play it on your turn, they get to use the mana they’ve left open and then have all their mana when they untap. Casting on their turn can screw up their plans at least a little bit.
Those little advantages can make all the difference against these decks. Learning to play your spells at the right time is one of the key skills needed to beat these kinds of decks.
When it comes to timing your spells, it’s also important to make sure you time all your other plays correctly. For example, if you have a creature (or more) to attack with, you should attack before casting your spell(s) for the turn. Your opponent may have a counterspell open, but they might also have a removal spell available. Attacking might prompt them to remove your attacker(s), leaving you free to cast your spell later in the turn.
Similarly, your opponent might decide it’s not worth countering if you cast your spell before attacking, leaving them free to use their removal spell on your attacker and save some damage. These are smaller details, but they’ll lead to you resolving more spells over time.
Find Turns to Double Spell
Decks usually only leave enough mana open for a single counterspell, especially when it costs two or more mana. A great strategy is to wait until you can cast more than one spell in a turn when you can guarantee resolving one of them.
Say you have five mana available and a 3-mana spell. It might not be a good idea to cast it if you could wait until the next turn when you hit six mana and can cast two 3-drop spells.
And if you combine this with the previous point, you can skip playing a 4-drop on turn 4 and wait until you can use a Duress to make sure the coast is clear.
Bait and Switch
Perhaps the most important strategy of this whole list is a classic “bait and switch.” Whether you’re double-spelling or just casting one spell, it’s important to know in which order to cast your spells.
Let’s say the best card in your hand is Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. You draw your fourth land, so of course you play your best spell. But what if it’s countered?
Maybe then you draw your fifth land and play your next best card, The Cruelty of Gix, but then that’s countered. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you had some objectively weaker cards in hand you could have tried them first to eat up the counterspells. This is what’s called “baiting a counterspell.”
You should be able to reasonably guess whether your opponent has a counterspell open. Even if you can’t guess, if your opponent is playing a blue deck and has two or more mana open and some cards in hand, it’s usually a safe bet. If that’s the case then it’s reasonable to assume you’d rather cast weaker spells first. If you do and they resolve, that lets you put pressure on your opponent. If they’re countered, then that’s one less counterspell available to threaten your stronger spells.
The strategy is simply to bait out these counterspells on less important or impactful spells, which opens a path to resolve your strongest cards. It can be surprisingly effective, especially when your deck is designed to make sure a particular spell resolves to win a game.
Make Your Spells Count and Prioritize Card Advantage
I’ve already talked about timing your spells to make it more likely for your better spells to resolve. The key is to make sure that the spells you resolve have more impact. And if the spells you resolve give you a considerable amount of card advantage, they’ll in turn give you more spells.
Magic is often a game that can be won or lost based on how many spells you cast during a game at its heart. Counterspells are inherently flawed on this front because they trade one-for-one with other spells.
But cards like Reckoner Bankbuster, Wedding Announcement, and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker all provide you with multiple cards if allowed to resolve. This is in fact the reason that these are among the strongest cards in Standard right now. It’s only a matter of time before you out-resource your opponent if you resolve enough of these kinds of cards.
There are a variety of cards that are a priority to resolve. Counterspells are going to be the easiest way to deal with cards if it’s harder for a deck to answer with removal. Cards like planeswalkers, artifacts, and enchantments often dodge a great deal of the most commonly played removal spells, especially in Standard. Extra copies of these are very common sideboard plans to take on these decks.
You basically want to make sure that, once you can resolve good spells, they’re crippling enough that your opponent is overwhelmed by them.
Duress | Illustration by Paul Scott Canavan
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a more in-depth take on strategy. There’s no one easy fix to playing against counterspells, but you should keep these tips in mind. You’ll find counterspells much easier to play against once you’re more practiced in them.
Would you like to see more like this in the future? Do you have any other tips to deal with counterspells that I didn’t cover here? Let me know in the comments below, or over in the Draftsim Discord. And be sure to share this with friends who might benefit from it.
Until next time, take care of yourselves!
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