Last updated on November 20, 2020
Cryptic Command | Illustration by Jason Rainville
Counterspells are pretty important in Magic. They make up a lot of blue’s color identity and they’re essentially a big old “no” to your opponent’s spells. They may be weak in some formats, only used by players who want to play a “permission” deck, but they’re the backbone of others: something to be aware of whenever you face a blue deck.
With that being said, it sounds like it’s time to do some comparing and ranking when it comes to counterspells. So join me, your British friend (tea and crumpets included) on a journey to discover what makes a good counterspell.
Welcome to the ultimate counterspell battle arena.
Counterspell Anatomy 101
So, what is a counterspell? To put it simply, it’s a spell that says something like “counter target spell” or “exile target spell.” You’ll usually see this on an instant, but sometimes it’ll make its way onto a creature or enchantment. These cards seem very difficult to design, as balancing power level and efficiency is a huge feat.
There are different types of counterspells. Some of them are better than others, but they all still apply to our list.
Hard, situational, and soft counterspells are the main three. There are some fringe cases, obviously, but they’re the main trio when it comes to types of counterspells. Here’s a handy chart to help you work out what’s what:
I don’t think a counterspell can be both hard and soft. Maybe Stubborn Denial? That’s still a stretch since it relies on outside factors to count as a hard counterspell.
Hard counterspells simply have text that says: “counter target spell.” The best of these, of course, is Counterspell. Or, well, Mana Drain, which is a strictly better version, but you can’t really play it anywhere.
These are usually great in hard control decks. They straight up stop your opponent from doing whatever they’re trying to do. They’re also usually very expensive and hard to use, though.
Counterspell | Illustration by Mark Poole
These are counterspells that only work in certain situations. Negate or Essence Scatter are good examples. They only work in specific circumstances under certain conditions. They’re usually cheaper and more efficient than their catchall counterparts, though.
Negate | Illustration by Billy Christian
Soft counterspells have a cost to negate their effect, like Mana Leak. They’re usually good for early game plays paired with some of the above as they can be flexible and catch someone out.
Mana Leak | Illustration by Howard Lyon
It’s Ranking Time
Now that we know what a counterspell is, I’m going to rank the best counterspells in each format. This is going to drag on a bit at the start since, well, Standard and Pioneer’s counterspells suck. But we can get through this together.
As of right now, we’re in the Throne of Eldraine/Zendikar Rising Standard.
Standard doesn’t have many great counterspells, but let’s rank through the best of the bunch anyway. I’ll do top three for this one since most of the options are rotten.
Third Place: Negate
Negates gets third because it’s a stellar card, but only in your sideboard. It’s situational but flexible and really easy to slot into a blue deck’s toolbox. It’s great, but only so great. It’s the easiest to cast out of the top three but just isn’t as powerful as the other two.
Negate has an interesting history. Originally printed in Morningtide, it has always been a mainstay in Standard and a decent card in Extended and Modern. It was printed from Magic 2010 to Magic 2015 and has been reprinted in a set every year since.
Second Place: Drown in the Loch
One of the best removal spells in the format, Drown in the Loch is my second pick for Standard. The restrictive nature of being blue and black is the only thing that makes it less accessible in the format. Other than that, it’s cooking with gas. Sure, it’s not as strong in a vacuum, but it does wonders in a deck full of mill effects and a format with cards like Fabled Passage with its ability to answer almost anything in the metagame.
The card was printed in Throne of Eldraine, and with Zendikar Rising’s rogue mill archetype, it just keeps getting better.
It is a counterspell.
I love the card, it’s just not great in the current meta.
This is a really cool and efficient card to have in tempo-based control decks, but it’s weaker compared to the other spells in this list.
I’ve had debates about this with multiple people. I think the fact that it’s very situational and also not really a counterspell (by tradition) means that it’s retired out of the official rankings.
First Place: Mystical Dispute
Situational counterspells are usually more efficient. But Mystical Dispute takes the cake, being both efficient and flexible. Its ability to counter any spell with some extra weight against blue makes it really easy to include in blue-heavy metagames and has taken the Magic world by storm.
Dispute was also printed in Eldraine, a very powerful set. It has minimal downside since the counter is on rate for a Standard set nowadays, so it’s had a great showing.
So, basically, Mystical Dispute is the counterspell champion of Standard!
I’m contractually obliged to say this at the end of every one of these, please save me.
Pioneer is a format? All right, well I guess we can do this.
Pioneer is similar to Standard, so there are a couple of repeat mentions in this list. I don’t think that control is very strong in the format at the moment, especially with the loss of Dimir Inverter, but, y’know, we’ll try it anyway.
Well, uh, here goes nothing.
Third Place: Sinister Sabotage
Ah, my first counterspell. This was the main counter in Standard when I started playing control, and, well, it’s not a great one. But it works, it lets you filter your draw, and it’s elegant. It’s probably the best Cancel variant out there.
Guilds of Ravnica was an awesome set. This has nothing to do with my card evaluation, but the set itself was brilliant, so maybe I’m looking back on this card with “guild-tinted glasses.” To be fair, though, it’s a four of in Wilderness Reclamation, so maybe it’s as great as the other two.
Second Place: Censor
This is a 2-mana Force Spike that cycles. It’s a really flexible card that sees lots of play because it’s basically a cantrip with a counter as an upside. I feel like Jwari Disruption tried to mimic this, but we haven’t really seen enough of it to know whether it succeeds.
This card is also huge because it adds to delve for cards like Dig Through Time, which was part of what made Dimir Inverter so strong. It’s simple but very effective.
I love this card as a huge fan of Force Spike, but I think it just misses the mark because of its lack of application in the format.
This one sees some play in Wilderness Reclamation decks, but not enough to warrant making the top three.
This is a very good card in Pioneer. It sees some play, but just like Rewind, it just doesn’t make the cut.
This card only makes it into some decks and sideboards this time, but it’s still a solid card.
First Place: Spell Queller
This may seem weird, but Spell Queller is amazing. Seeing play in Spirits in Pioneer, this card is so good that it can’t not be the number one spot. It’s great with Teferi, Time Raveler, it’s a nice, aggressive beater with evasion, and it has flash.
Spell Queller is often overlooked because it’s more aggressive than most control decks want to be. But, pre-Shark Typhoon, this was the best aggressive threat for decks that wanted something like Squadron Hawk without going all out with a planeswalker.
That makes Spell Queller is the counterspell champion of Pioneer!
Now we’re cooking with gas. Modern is another beast when it comes to its options for counter-magic. Unlike Pioneer, it has some of the best spells to offer.
It may seem redundant, as a lot of the counterspells in Modern have great uses within their specific decks, but these rankings are meant to be a catchall. However, the fact that all of Modern’s blue decks basically have their own counterspells is a testament to how great and diverse the format is right now.
Fifth Place: Veil of Summer
Veil gets fifth because it is highly situational and only works for a certain type of spell. It won’t counter Liliana of the Veil or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. But it’s still a fantastic card that shouldn’t be overlooked. It may even be too strong for the format. Maybe.
Fourth Place: Stubborn Denial
This card is a house in Death’s Shadow or RUG Delver of Secrets decks. If you run a creature with power 4 or greater (which both decks often do), Denial just becomes a tempo gain. And, unlike Pioneer, it’s a lot easier to use this card since Modern has a lot more non-creature spells you want to be countering.
Third Place: Archmage’s Charm
Hailing from Modern Horizons, Charm is essentially a counterspell with two other optional modes: impersonating Divination or doubling as a weird CMC 1 (or less) control effect on top. This card is now an auto-include in every Modern UW control deck because of its versatility.
Charm also bears resemblance to another card, which may or may not be coming up soon…
Second Place: Force of Negation
A reference to the infamous Force of Will, Force of Negation is a powerhouse in the Modern format. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s a testament of the effect of force cards; they’re pretty good at what they do. It only gets second because the free spell effect is only during your opponent’s turn, plus it only affects non-creature spells. But, honestly, that doesn’t make it bad.
Second place is still respectable. If it wasn’t for the fact that the first-place card is the cream of the crop, Force of Negation would’ve been up there.
First Place: Swan Song
The all-powerful, all-amazing, all-swan—
Wait, No, That’s Not Right. First Place, Take 2: Cryptic Command
Cryptic Command is a pillar of the Modern format. It’s one of the most flexible blue cards and, as seen recently with Mystic Sanctuary’s situation, the card is just amazing. I don’t think I can really attest to how many times it’s come up in the format. Ever since its printing in Lorywn, Cryptic Command has been awesome in the decks that run it.
It’s also got other relevant modes, so it becomes really useful in a format as slow as Modern since it can work as a gate. The only downside are the UUU pips in its cost, but that’s easily doable in a UW control deck.
Therefore, Cryptic Command is the—
No more, I can’t do this.
Cryptic Command is the winner of this counterspell showdown.
(Sounds way better, right?)
Legacy and Vintage
So, Legacy and Vintage are pretty similar when it comes to their counterspells. Essentially, Vintage counterspells are the ones that are banned in Legacy plus the ones in Legacy, so it’s fitting that we just squish them together. I also feel like I can talk about them a lot more if I talk about them in the context of both formats, having moved from Modern to Legacy and Vintage recently. I know, shocker!
I’m also forgoing actual rankings, since the counterspells in these formats are just the counterspells. There’s less variation because of the formats’ card pools. These are the only counterspells that see play because they’re just so good at their job.
Force of Will
Well… This is the card that basically just ignites the format. There’s nothing quite like it, other than the aforementioned Force of Negation. And with Brainstorm, it makes up a lot of the format. If you’re running blue, then you’re probably running Force of Will.
I think the fact that it’s a two-for-one is what makes it so great. It’s not too overpowered but it still makes up a lot of the format. It’s a must play in Legacy, and you always have to play around it.
In Vintage, the card plays the same role; kind of a power valve for the format. Basically, every non-workshop deck plays Force of Will because it lets you tap out for your spells and keep an answer in hand.
This is the equivalent of Censor and Stubborn Denial in Legacy, but it does it so much better. It’s an eloquent card, and essentially Rishadan Ports your opponent if they know they have to play around it.
It plays a similar role in Vintage. Seeing play in most of the blue decks, it acts in the same way as in Legacy.
The best non-blue counterspell, Pyroblast is the only reason red sees play in some Legacy and Vintage decks. It’s blue permanent removal as well, so it answers Oko, Thief of Crowns and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It’s a card that would never see print nowadays, so you can only really make use of it in these formats and Pauper.
In Vintage, the card is sometimes main-deck-able. I have a copy of it in my Jeskai Time Vault deck, and blue’s position in the metagame means that it just works.
Sure, this card is legal in Modern now, but it’s more nuts in Legacy and Vintage. It does wonders against Ad Nauseam Tendrils, THE EPIC STORM (I can never not put that in caps), and also does a great job of winning counter-wars. It’s a great card and has won me lots of spell-resolution battles. It’s main-deck-able in Vintage, especially in BUG.
Mindbreak Trap fulfils a similar role to Flusterstorm, but it’s a bit more risk/reward. Sometimes it can blow out games, sometimes it’s just a dead card in your hand.
Strictly better Counterspell, Mana Drain just kind of rocks. It gives a huge advantage nowadays but used to always be worse than Counterspell (in theory) because of mana burn. I’m also really shocked that it’s not on the reserved list.
The Ultimate Top Five
Honestly, the best five counterspells (to me) are:
Remand is great, maybe not so much anymore but it holds a special place in my heart because of its place in Twin.
I had Forbid in my first ever control deck, for throwback Standard (Mirage Draw-Go). I love the card, especially partnered with Whispers of the Muse!
Whew, that was a fun one!
I’m evil, I love midrange and control, so counterspells are great in my mind. What do you think? Do you agree? Do you think Swan Song deserves better? Leave a comment down below with your thoughts!
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