Friday, April 27, 2012

M13 Trajectories: The Perfect 2-mana Counterspell

Welcome to M13 Trajectories, where I discuss how card designs from our virtual M13 project have changed through the hands of multiple people.

Today, I'd like to discuss this counterspell that costs 2:

Traditionally, counterspells that cost 2 mana, like the original Counterspell and Mana Leak, have fueled oppressive strategies.

In the olden days, counter-heavy UW decks were a staple of tournaments. Having access to early counterspells like Force Spike, Counterspell, and Mana Leak, they would just say "no" to every spell every turn to make sure nothing happened, and then win with an excruciatingly slow win condition. To give an example, one deck centered around Jester's Cap was so slow and impenetrable it would win by removing every card from an opponent's library with a Jester's Cap that was recurred with a Soldevi Digger. (And the Digger merely puts the Cap on the bottom of its owner's library!!)

Recently, Mana Leak has been brought back for a limited time (presumably to create excitement), but is acknowledged by Development that it is not something they would normally print by modern R&D standards.

When counters cost 2, not only can it fuel a "wall of denial" strategy, it can also allow an aggro-control strategy where you cast an early threat and then just sit on the lead, making sure the current advantage you have doesn't change.

When counters cost just one more, the math changes a lot. Once counters cost 3, the range of early threats that can't be stopped by them is much wider, and the control player can't just continue to pass the turn with mana untapped; they have to interact with the board somehow, if only with a removal spell. Furthermore, when your counters cost at least 3 it becomes much harder to cast a removal spell and leave mana for countering, or to cast a threat and have enough mana to protect it with a counter.

Unfortunately, while that balances counters, it also really diminishes the playability of the counters. Matt Sperling points out in this article that counters have a valuable role for keeping the game balanced in that they answer threats that are hard to stop effectively otherwise.

Over the years, many counters that cost 2 have been designed with drawbacks to find a happy medium. Some of them require the caster to have proactively developed his or her board rather than just sit back and counter things:

Corrupted Resolve
Dispersal Shield
Jaded Response
Stoic Rebuttal
Spell Syphon
Unified Will
Familiar's Ruse

Some counters have creative restrictions that use a set mechanic:

Logic Knot

Some of these counters seek to balance counters by inducing a tempo loss for the caster:

Familiar's Ruse

Temporal Glitch would be the type that balances countering with tempo loss. It can't be used for a wall of denial strategy; even if an opponent's threat is countered, the opponent will be able to resolve something else, so you can't just sit back and keep countering things. Also, an aggro-control strategy can't use Temporal Glitch to maintain its lead, since your opponent will be able to resolve some kind of threat or removal, if not the one you countered.

While this card is a nerfed counter, it isn't pointless to play. You can't use it to stifle the opponent's board development, but you can be selective about what the opponent gets to resolve. Sometimes you'll counter a Titan with it and the opponent won't necessarily have something to recast that is on par with what got countered. Sometimes you'll just cast it on a turn where you'll still have mana left over to respond to the opponent's second spell with something else. You can take out a critical combo piece with it; a deck could run a few copies of this for handling those emergency situations. Also, it is conceivable to cast it on turn 2, unlike many of the cards above such as Deprive which you really don't want to cast on turn 2.

Another thing I like about Temporal Glitch is that the drawback isn't purely mechanical, but rather it is intuitively understandable. We often experience something like this in real life - if you have a ticket for a flight and your flight get canceled, the money you payed gets reimbursed. Getting back mana is one natural conclusion to your spell getting dissolved.

This card was originally proposed by Jay Treat in this post.

My small involvement with this card was that I insisted that it gets added to our virtual M13 files. The original card said "return all mana spent to cast that spell to its controller's mana pool" but we changed it to untapping lands for two reasons. First of all, people might not remember what mana was spent to pay for the generic part of the cost, especially if Dual lands are involved and many other spells were cast in response. Secondly, a person might need to tap his Dual lands differently to cast another spell; for example if a GG spell that was cast off of a Forest and Rootbound Crag was countered, that player may want to cast a 1R spell instead. Other than this minor change, the card has pretty much remained the same.

One more category of restriction for a 2cc counter I've seen proposed by many people such as Patrick Chapin or Luminum Can (an amateur designer) is the text "counter target spell with CMC 3 or lower," in the vein of Liquify, Prohibit, and Thoughtbind. It may be too good of a counter on turn 2 or 3, and because low CMC spells are cast throughout the game, the restriction might not be a large one. The card may lead to some of the same problems that Mana Leak has lead to. That said, it may be balanced by the fact it doesn't work against the 6-drops that are prevalent nowadays, and is certainly more limited than a Mana Leak in a Titan world. It could be another good candidate for a balanced 2cc counter.

I hope you enjoyed this. On Monday, I'll be talking about a card that follows up on Innistrad's themes.


  1. I like this plan. It feels to me like counterspells serve several different functions: removing one-off bombs, tempo advantage in countering early threats, card "advantage" by running the opponent out of cards. And that wizards probably want to be able to push some of these usages without others.

    Unfortunately, I'm not enough of a competitive player to say _which_ need to be pushed.

    The "counter CMC <=3" is a good tempo defence in the early game. Temporal Glitch is a good answer to overpowered creatures. And I think the game probably does want both of those in different amounts, but I'm not sure. And yes, simply being able to counter everything is probably what it doesn't want.

  2. We could always revise rule 701.5b — "The player who cast a countered spell or activated a countered ability doesn't get a "refund" of any costs that were paid."

    1. Wow there is actually a rule mentioning a refund? So mana refund does actually occur to people's minds when spells get countered!

      If we changed that rule, some expensive counters could say as a bonus "Counter target spell. No refund."

    2. Yeah, I jokingly used that rule as the one to revise for my GDS2 Rule-Breaker essay, but there is a nugget of real-world value in potentially revising it.

      However, there are serious logistical issues with ever attempting such a thing, as activated abilities and spells with additional (non-mana) costs lead to scenarios where "refunding" those costs would be unreasonable or simply game-breaking.

    3. Then simply don't refund the additional cost. It wouldn't be to hard in some cases. Most cards read "as an additional cost" anyway so that could be where counter would get to keep a little bit of power. This would however take away some of the sting if an opponent turn 2 harrows with a Llanowar elf or Birds of Paradise by letting them have the 2G back even though they dont get the land, i have seen people flat give up after losing a turn 2 harrow. From a casual point of view solid counter control is quite possibly the most infuriating deck to play against and seeing 7 Lullmage Mentores on the field was downright heartbreaking. I wouldn't mind seeing a nerf in the counter mechanic really. In the bigger formats Counterspell can be, in a very indirect and roundabout way, a removal spell. UU says about 90 of all spells in the game lose if unanswered and it bounced between common and uncommon, a BB Destroy target nonland permanent does almost the same thing on paper to permanents and would be Mythic rare and worth 25 dollars lol.