Last updated on February 18, 2024

Counterspell (Secret Lair) - Illustration by Mateus Manhanini

Counterspell (Secret Lair) | Illustration by Mateus Manhanini

Blue has historically been Magic’s strongest color for a few reasons. It has excellent card draw to generate card advantage more easily than the other colors. Some of the best planeswalkers ever printed, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, are blue.

But blue’s biggest boon is its access to countermagic. Having control over which cards resolve and which spells have no effect is one of the strongest actions in the game. While blue is king of countermagic, every color has access to at least a few counterspells, so today I’m looking at the best of each!

What Are Counterspells in MTG?

Counterspell - Illustration by Zack Stella

Counterspell | Illustration by Zack Stella

Counterspells are spells that allow you to counter a spell while it’s on the stack. It's incredibly powerful because it stops spells on the stack from ever resolving, preventing your opponent from getting benefits from spending their mana and using a card in their hand.

The vast majority of counterspells are blue instants. Countering spells is solidly part of blue’s color pie, though the other colors have a couple of counterspells. They’re always instants because you need to respond to a spell being put on the stack, so a sorcery-speed counterspell would never work.

Some creatures, artifacts, and enchantments have abilities that can counter spells by paying mana or other costs. This list is primarily interested in instant-speed countermagic since that has the broadest applications.

The two biggest things I’m looking at to rank this list are efficiency and hard countermagic. “Hard” versus “soft” counters refers to whether the spell counters a spell unconditionally or not. For example, Counterspell is a hard counter because it simply counters the target spell, whereas Quench is a soft counter because it only counters the spell if the opponent can’t pay the two. If the opponent ever has two mana, Quench effectively does nothing.

Efficiency is important because part of a counterspell’s strength comes from often trading up in mana. You don’t want to hold up four or five mana only to waste it all on a 2-drop. The more expensive your countermagic is, the clunkier it gets and the harder it becomes to curve out and use your mana effectively.

Best White Counterspells

4. Lapse of Certainty

Lapse of Certainty

Lapse of Certainty is a bit expensive, but also a strong tempo play. It forces your opponent to spend their mana in the same way the next turn or knocks them off their ideal curve. Putting the spell back on top keeps the opponent from drawing an answer or critical card for an extra turn.

3. Illumination

Illumination

From the studio that brought you Minions comes an efficient counterspell to deal with artifacts and enchantments. Illumination is a neat trick to stop an artifact deck from getting a combo together or playing indestructible artifacts it would struggle to deal with otherwise. The life gain isn’t relevant and is a typical balancing act for white removal.

2. Rebuff the Wicked

Rebuff the Wicked

Rebuff the Wicked is a bit narrow but incredibly efficient. It’s easy to sequence with it and hold up a single mana to protect your cards from interaction and generally trades up in mana. If you never get to use it, your board likely isn’t getting interacted with, so it’s fine.

1. Mana Tithe

Mana Tithe

Cube all-star Mana Tithe isn’t an amazing white counterspell, but it’s about as efficient as countermagic can be. You also get a ton of value from casting it in the first game because your opponents will spend every future game playing around the Tithe, throwing their curve off – even if you don’t have it in hand.

Best Blue Counterspells

19. Mindbreak Trap

Mindbreak Trap

Mindbreak Trap is the most expensive counterspell on the list at four mana but costs nothing in the right circumstances. This trap has seen sideboard play in formats to beat Storm for free since it can exile all the copies and is still useful in some commander decks. It also gets a boost for not technically “countering” a spell; it exiles the spell right off the stack, so it deals with uncounterable spells like Niv-Mizzet, Parun or Abrupt Decay.

18. Arcane Denial

Arcane Denial

Arcane Denial is actually quite alright in Commander specifically. While it seems like card disadvantage in a 1v1 exchange, which it is, you need to remember you're playing a 4-player game. In the order of who benefits the most, the other two players who don't get to draw cards come in last. You're down a card compared to one opponent, but you also got to deny them a card (like Remand!)

17. Fierce Guardianship

Fierce Guardianship

Fierce Guardianship was tricky to rank because it’s absolutely amazing in Commander and irrelevant everywhere else. Fierce Guardianship is amazing in a blue commander deck as a free counterspell. It protects your commander or combo pieces or disrupts your opponents the turn you tap out to play your general. It could easily be higher if it did anything in any other format.

16. Delay

Delay

Delay is a soft counter because you’ll need to deal with the threat eventually, but it’s still a useful piece of countermagic. It’s incredible in a counter war or against spells with X in their casting cost because X is 0 when they come off suspend. Cards like Drannith Magistrate or Teferi, Time Raveler also flat prevent your opponents from casting it, and other Rule of Law effects limit their options during the rest of the turn it comes off suspend.

15. An Offer You Can’t Refuse

An Offer You Can't Refuse

In Magic, efficiency often comes with a drawback. In the case of An Offer You Can't Refuse, that’s giving your opponent mana. It’s a big downside that’s harsh outside of Commander, in 1v1 formats. But sometimes you just can’t let that Ad Nauseum resolve.

14. Spell Pierce

Spell Pierce

Spell Pierce is a soft counter, but it’s an effective disruptive piece and a staple in many sideboards across formats. Like Mana Tithe, savvy opponents play around this card, but that delays their game plan for at least two turns. This is at its best in older formats where everybody’s skimping on lands because their spells are just that efficient.

13. Cryptic Command

Cryptic Command

Once a staple in Modern, Cryptic Command is an incredibly flexible counterspell despite being mana intensive. Options are always powerful. It doesn’t even need to be a counterspell. While counter-draw is likely the most chosen combination of modes, this can dig you for an answer and buy you a turn by tapping lethal attackers or bouncing an offending permanent. Costing is the only thing holding this card back.

12. Archmage’s Charm

Archmage's Charm

Archmage's Charm is Cryptic Command’s more efficient younger brother, though it’s just as mana intensive. It sees a decent amount of Modern play and has a lot of flexibility. Stealing a permanent is an especially cheeky mode, and the straight card advantage from an instant speed Divination isn’t bad either.

11. Memory Lapse

Memory Lapse

Time Walk, is that you? Memory Lapse is just a better version of Lapse of Certainty in a better color. The effect gives blue decks lots of time to work with. Sometimes you’re just delaying the inevitable until you can find a hard counter, and sometimes that turn of breathing room is all it takes to end the game.

10. Flusterstorm

Flusterstorm

Flusterstorm is another counter to storm decks like Mindbreak Trap but lacks the drawbacks of inefficiency. Even against non-storm decks, this is incredibly strong. It’s basically Spell Piece that scales with the number of cards cast and can counter multiple spells on the stack.

9. Stubborn Denial

Stubborn Denial

Creatures and countermagic don’t often work well together since one requires you to use mana on your turn and the other wants you to use it on your opponent’s. Stubborn Denial helps the two meet in the middle. We’ve discussed how playing around Mana Tithe forces your opponent off-curve, and Stubby-D takes this a step further by acting as a hard counter for decks like Death’s Shadow and Neoform Atraxa.

8. Mystical Dispute

Mystical Dispute

Mystical Dispute became an instant staple after its printing in Throne of Eldraine. You can find it in the sideboard and some mainboards of decks across Pioneer and Modern, where it becomes a one-mana Mana Leak in the right matchup. It’s better than many color hate cards because it still does something in the main deck, even if your opponent isn’t running blue.

7. Swan Song

Swan Song

Swan Song is incredibly strong, if narrow. Giving your opponent a 2/2 won’t matter in many cases, especially if you blow them out in a do-or-die situation. It wins counter-wars with ease and disrupts lots of strategies.

6. Daze

Daze

Daze is a Legacy staple and too good for Pauper. We’ve looked at efficiency in terms of 1-mana spells, but now we’re getting to the free stuff. This is great in aggressive tempo decks like Legacy Delver that want to tap out for a threat like Delver of Secrets or Dragon's Rage Channeler while protecting themselves from the high-powered cards. These decks are especially good at capitalizing on the time bought from your opponent respecting Daze and waiting a turn to play their spell.

5. Counterspell

Counterspell

Counterspell is one of the best counterspells ever printed and, in my mind, one of the most elegantly designed cards in Magic. This is the most efficient hard counter because it hits everything universally. It’s completely unrestricted, unlike some of the 1-mana cards we’ve seen, and it’s played in pretty much every format.

4. Force of Negation

Force of Negation

Force of Negation is a two-for-one if you’re casting it for free, and it’s restrictive as to when you can cast it for free and what it counters. But free countermagic is still free countermagic, and it’s reasonably easy to hard cast.

3. Pact of Negation

Pact of Negation

The top three counterspells opens with Pact of Negation. This is a 5-mana counterspell that also costs zero mana. You can tap out and still protect your combo or your creatures, waiting to pay the price until the next turn. Of course, you can always win the turn you play this and never worry about paying the .

2. Force of Will

Force of Will

Force of Will is the original Force spell, and it hits everything for free. This card is responsible for the Storm Crow memes and has killed the dreams of many an adventurous Vintage Cube drafter. It’s just better than Force of Negation, but the only knock against it is that it’s harder to hard-cast. But freely protecting your combos more than makes up for a little mana.

1. Mana Drain

Mana Drain

Mana Drain is just a strictly better Counterspell. You get all the efficiency of the original with a burst of mana production tacked on. Even if this counters a 2-mana play on turn two, that lets you start turn three with five mana. This can cause even greater swings later in the game. It may not have Counterspell’s elegance, but it punches well above its weight in terms of mana cost to output.

Best Black Counterspells

2. Dash Hopes

Dash Hopes

Dash Hopes isn’t the strongest counterspell in the game, but it’s interesting. The biggest downside to cards like these is that it gives your opponent an option, and they choose the mode that hurts them the least. This might be the softest counter on the list, but it’s still an option to let black interact with the stack.

1. Withering Boon

Withering Boon

Withering Boon is a much more black counterspell and a hard counter. It might not be necessary for a color that’s already swimming in excellent creature interaction, but Withering Boon lets you deal with creatures with problematic ETBs before they become a problem. This isn’t much worse than the blue Essence Scatter, which is incredibly high praise for a non-blue hard counter.

Best Red Counterspells

3. Artifact Blast

Artifact Blast

This first red counterspell is a clean answer to artifacts. Artifact Blast is far from red’s only tool to deal with artifacts, but it's useful if your meta necessities answering indestructible artifacts red’s various Shatter effects can’t hit.

2. Pyroblast + Red Elemental Blast

Pyroblast and Red Elemental Blast are close enough to the same card to put them together. These are fantastic sideboard cards in blue-heavy formats like Pauper and fit well into Commander decks. Pyroblast gets a slight nod as the more versatile card since you can cast it even if there isn’t a blue permanent or spell to target. This lets you get an extra storm count or an additional trigger of something like Birgi, God of Storytelling or Niv-Mizzet, Parun.

1. Tibalt’s Trickery

Tibalt's Trickery

Tibalt's Trickery tops the red counterspells with a devilishly good time. It netted a ban in Modern, and it’s just fun. It gives red access to a hard counter that’s a bit of a gamble since your opponent could find something better. At the very least, they’ll never get the card they wanted to resolve. This is especially good against decks running lots of countermagic since they’re likely to hit a do-nothing counterspell off the top.

Best Green Counterspells

2. Avoid Fate

Avoid Fate

Are you a Timmy tired of your Bird being Bolted? Avoid Fate makes that a thing of the past! If you play your Birds of Paradise on turn two. This is an interesting protective counterspell for green decks. It’s a little narrow because it doesn’t protect against sorcery-speed or creature-based interaction like Flame Slash or Noxious Gearhulk but could certainly be a useful tool.

1. Veil of Summer

Veil of Summer

I’m stretching the definition of a counterspell to add Veil of Summer, but you can’t really talk about the best counterspells without it. It’s so efficient against blue and black decks that it was banned in Standard, and it’s become a sideboard staple in the vein of Mystical Dispute or Pyroblast. It’s restrictive, but “counters” a spell and draws a card. It’s even versatile because you can cycle this without needing it to counter something.

Best Multicolored Counterspells

8. Dromar’s Charm

Dromar's Charm\

There are quite a few charms in Magic that let you counter spells as one of their three modes. Dromar's Charm gets the nod for being an unconditional counter as opposed to soft or conditional counters like Izzet Charm or Dimir Charm. Three colors is definitely a bit more restrictive, but this function as a reasonable counterspell or small interaction and is a fine addition to many Esper decks.

7. Guttural Response

Guttural Response

Guttural Response is another narrow but efficient counterspell. It gives red-green decks another tool to fight the blue meta. It gets a bit of a bump for also being unexpected. Who plays around Guttural Response? This counterspell lets you resolve key threats, stops your opponent from drawing cards, and is an absolute blowout against the Commander player tapping out for Cyclonic Rift.

6. Counterflux

Counterflux

3-mana countermagic is clunky, but Counterflux being uncounterable is a big boon. It prevents your opponents from defending spells you want to counter and can make it harder for them to fight against your own spells depending on the countermagic they’re holding. You can also overload it to deal with storm or clear out a cluttered stack in Commander.

5. Soul Manipulation

Soul Manipulation

Who doesn’t like countermagic that draws you a card? Soul Manipulation is the lovechild of Raise Dead and Essence Scatter. It’s a flexible two-for-one since you can use either mode in a pinch. Three mana isn’t a great rate for either effect, but it’s pretty good for both.

4. Decisive Denial

Decisive Denial

Modal spells are powerful since they let you adapt to the greatest threat. Decisive Denial deals with problematic spells or creatures. Fighting is especially useful since that becomes more useful later in the game when you have big creatures, which is about the time the soft counter starts dropping off because everybody has so much mana.

3. Countersquall

Countersquall

Countersquall is a multicolored Negate that comes with a bit of damage tacked on. It’s a pretty smooth card that does what you need and works well in decks that care about multicolored permanents.

2. Drown in the Loch

Drown in the Loch

Drown in the Loch needs a little work to get enabled but is powerful if you can make it work. The main weakness of countermagic is its inability to deal with resolved spells. This card’s modes catch threats on the stack or in play. It’s especially good in formats with lots of fetch lands and efficient spells that get the opponent to fill their graveyard for you.

1. Dovin’s Veto

Dovin's Veto

Dovin's Veto stands as the best multicolored counterspell. Much like Counterflux, this gives you the final say in what is and isn’t resolving for one less mana. Not hitting creatures makes this more of a sideboard card or two-of, but when it’s effective, it’s pretty much the best.

Best Counterspell Payoffs and Synergies

There are a few good payoffs to running counterspells. Since they want you to cast spells on your opponent’s turn, cards that benefit from that like Wavebreak Hippocamp and Rashmi, Eternities Crafter that draw you cards can put you far ahead. They also work well with spells like Nightpack Ambusher that reward you for not casting spells.

Countermagic also works well in many spellslinger strategies utilizing cards like Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Talrand, Sky Summoner for maximum value, triggering your spells while denying your opponents resources.

They also work well in tempo decks like Legacy Delver or Murktide in Modern. These decks often use countermagic to knock the opponent off-balance and close the game with things like Delver or Murktide.

How Many Counterspells Should You Play in Your Deck?

The number of counterspells you play in your deck depends on your strategy. An aggro deck may not want many, if any counterspells since they want to use their mana each turn to cast spells like Goblin Guide and Lightning Bolt that deal damage rather than spending mana to disrupt the opponent.

On the flip side, control decks are often stuffed with countermagic. The “draw-go” playstyle describes decks that want to play lands on their turn and pass, holding up an army of countermagic. It’s also not uncommon to see midrange decks that run little to no countermagic in the mainboard but sideboard into a few choice cards like Mystical Dispute or Negate for games two and three.

When you’re deciding how many counterspells you want to put in your deck, there are two important factors to consider: their inherent weakness, and the other cards in your deck.

Most counterspells share the weakness that they do nothing if your opponent resolves a threat. If you lose the die roll to an aggro deck and they drop Goblin Guide into Eidolon of the Great Revel and your only interaction is countermagic, you’ve already lost. You need to balance your permission spells with hard interaction to have a robust and flexible removal suite.

The more cards you want to play at sorcery speed your deck has, the less countermagic you want. If you’re playing a green ramp deck focused on dropping lots of sorcery speed ramp in the early game, like Llanowar Elves and Cultivate, it’ll be hard for you to hold Counterspell since that plan clashes with your primary game strategy. Decks that want to tap out and use all their mana on their turn rarely run much countermagic, at least in the main deck, except for a few choice pieces. This could be the deck to run something like Stubborn Denial, for example.

What Happens When You Counter a Spell?

When you counter a spell on the stack, it has no effect and goes straight to the graveyard. Some counterspells, like Remand or Dissipate, specify send the card to a different zone.

If there’s an effect in play affecting cards going to the graveyard like Rest In Peace, the countered spell gets sent to the appropriate zone.

If a spell that can’t be countered like Abrupt Decay is targeted by a counterspell, it simply won’t be countered as that spell resolves. Any other effects on the counterspell still take place. For example, if I target Abrupt Decay with Remand, Decay isn’t countered or returned to its owner’s hand, but I still draw a card.

Why Is Counterspell So Good?

Doom Blade

The three strongest things you can do in Magic are to draw cards, make lands drops, and tell your opponent “no.” Because counterspells prevent threats from resolving, there’s no window for your opponents to do anything. If you use a removal spell on a planeswalker, they’ve usually have gotten at least one activation from it. A creature with an ETB has already impacted the game by the time Doom Blade hits it.

Countermagic prevents any of this from happening. Another strength of countermagic is that it often trades up in mana. Trading up in mana means you’re spending less mana to answer a threat than your opponent is spending to cast it. For example, if I use Counterspell on a Teferi, Time Raveler, I’ve spent two mana while my opponent has spent three. If I was on the play, that could give me extra mana to spend on something like an Opt, but it also means I’m not behind on the draw.

Since they often trade up in mana, it gives you more freedom to play multiple spells a turn. If you’re playing Murktide, you can play your Dragon's Rage Channeler and hold up Counterspell on turn three, relatively comfortable in your ability to answer a 3- or 4-mana play from my opponent.

Countermagic is a balanced mechanic; they’re rarely more than a one-for-one trade, and it has some significant weaknesses. The best way to utilize them is to understand how you want countermagic to interact with your curve. If you’re reliant on curving out early and often, countermagic might not fit into your deck as well as it would in a deck that has nothing better to do with its early mana than hold up Counterspell and Glimmer of Genuis.

What Happens If You Cascade into a Counterspell?

When you cascade into a counterspell, you get to cast the counterspell like you would any other card. The big weakness of cascading into a counterspell is that the only legal target for the counterspell is often your Bloodbraid Elf or whatever card you cast with cascade. If you cast the counterspell, you’ll counter your spell. You can decline to cast the spell, so you basically waste the cascade. Typically, a deck with cascade cards should run little, if any, countermagic.

Wrap Up

Dash Hopes - Illustration by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

Dash Hopes | Illustration by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai

Countermagic is incredibly powerful in Magic. The ability to tell your opponents “no” and deny them their spells is a large part of what makes blue Magic’s strongest color. Of course, blue isn’t alone in its ability to counter spells.

With at least a little countermagic in every color, many decks can use permission spells to control the stack. Why should spells resolve when you can hold open your mana until the end of time?

What are your favorite counterspells? Do you run any non-blue countermagic in your decks? Care to leave any hints on how to beat counterspells? Let me know in the Draftsim Discord or the comments!

Stay safe and remember to say no!


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1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Josh December 5, 2021 8:05 pm

    Hey man, absolutely loved this list! Your writing is legendary and what a personality you have. I’m feeling like trying out printing a legacy or vintage deck as I have done with modern since I started playing in 2014. Do you have any other lists? I’m definitely saving this list for another read later.

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