Cavern of Souls and the Counterspell Problem

Editor’s Note: I accidentally titled this post way too close to Kirblar024’s post on the same subject that I read earlier. I had titled this something a bit longer and reworded it at the last moment, and this one seemed to fit. Now I know why. I highly recommend you check out his post because he argues that Hexproof is the issue where I only briefly mention it here. Cavern of Souls and the “Counterspell Problem” in Standard. Yeah, way too close, so a link here is my apology. It was a good read, highly suggest you check it out.

In the beginning Counterspell was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

Cavern of Souls is a very controversial card to say the least.

Originally created to combat the Mana Leak problem (mixed with Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets), there are some who cry out and say that it is exactly those cards that keep the scarier cards in the format in check. Matt Sperling on Channel Fireball explains that the issue is not Mana Leak, but these large creatures that create quite extensive card advantage. It’s these cards that their caster gets such a huge benefit from getting these creatures on the battlefield that Blue has to have good counterspells to help with the metagame from becoming too much of a one deck hierarchy.

Which of course that it’s funny that Delver decks are everywhere, which WotC was trying to deal with in the first place. Now Cavern of Souls will go into those decks to make Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets much more powerful because they can’t be countered.

This all begs the question: Why should we rely on Blue to help keep the metagame in check?

Throughout history Blue decks have been a staple in almost every format. Being able to out draw, counter spells, and deal with permanents at their own leisure has allowed one color to rise above the rest. However when we get a land that stops a portion of a card type, not the card type or all colors of the card type mind you, suddenly WotC is throwing the future metagame into a tizzy because the traditional “control” color can’t deal with threats.

Well, it can still bounce them.

And copy them.

And put them on top of their library.

And take control of them.

What can Black, Red, Green, or White do? Destory, deal damage, Fight, or temporary exile them. Almost one in each color. Yet Blue can do so much more combined. And it constantly gets these types of spells in each set.

At all rarities, at all card types.

This is the identity of Blue; out think, and outplay your opponent. The color is driven on card advantage. So when another color gets a hint of card advantage, everyone turns to Blue to “Fix” the metagame. If no one can, then clearly the format is broken.

Bloodbraid Elf.

Tempered Steel.

Kessig Wolf Run.

Only Blue keeps getting counterspells to “keep” the format in check. And I feel this should change. How?

Give every color counterspells.

I know that some of you are going to question about Hexpoof creatures. If suddenly they are uncounterable and now untargetable by opponents, doesn’t that prove that Blue should get those counterspells anyway since no color can target those creatures anyway. Currently the most popular Hexproof creatures in Standard are Drogskol Captain; Dungrove Elder; Geist of Saint Traft; and Thrun, the Last Troll (Drogskol not itself Hexproof, but you get the point). That’s two Blue/White and Two Green creatures, with Invisible Stalker and Lord of the Unreal also seeing playing time behind the top four. Blue has another advantage over the other colors.

I’ve already gone over about how spells (especially counterspells) have decreased in power from the beginning of the game while creatures have increased, but here are the talking points for those who haven’t read it or don’t feel like clicking a link. Spells used to be really powerful, so powerful in fact that competitive decks could play with very few creatures and rely on spells to win the game. When Serra Angel was your control finisher and was considered too powerful to see print, you knew creatures were bad. So WotC started to slowly increase the impact that creatures had on the game and slowly power down spells, including counterspells. Of course the game has shifted that creatures are more powerful than spells in the newer formats.

One of the main ways that WotC accomploished this was to introduce “187” creatures. Three creatures from Visions, Man-O’-War, Nekrataal and Uktabi Orangutan, introduced the concept that creatures could have spell like abilities. From bouncing a creature, killing one, to destroying an artifact, you got the benefit of a spell by paying a little more and a creature you could beat or block with. It was that “You’ve got peanut butter in my chocolate” moment that Magic has embraced ever since.

For those of you who don’t get why this was an important paradigm shift, it’s like this. If I have a Doom Blade and a 2/1 first striking creature, it’s two cards. To get the same effect as a Nekrataal, you have to hope that you get both of them in your hand. By having them on the same creature, you’ve opened up four possible spots in your deck that you can devote somewhere else. Even before this moment designing a creature was to make it be a creature flavorfully; there was almost no thought into making it spell-like. This also means that you get value for your creature if it gets destroyed. If someone Doom Blades your Borderland Ranger you were still able to tutor up a basic land. By having the creatures mimic spells by not only entering the battlefield, but by their activated and triggered effects, this opened up making creatures much more powerful later on. All the colors have a way with dealing with creatures after they were on the battlefield.

Only very rarely does a non-Blue color get that chance before they become a threat (Mostly Black in discarding). Blue even has milling, if you want to go there.

Which is how we eventually ended up with the Titans (Frost, Grave, Inferno, Primeval, and Sun). WotC pushed to see how far an enters the battlefield ability could go. While it’s great to see the attack trigger (from a design perspective), the caster could potentially be way up by the time of their next turn if an opponent doesn’t get rid of the Titan right away. That means several things: destroying it, exiling it, bouncing it, or countering it. Guess which one is more effective to prevent the triggers in the first place?

By looking at counterspells, you have to look at why they’re so good. Assume we both had three lands in play and a hand full of cards. It’s your turn and you cast a Mirrian Crusader. I decide to counter it with Cancel. Now it’s my turn, and I’m in a better position. Why? You just spent your turn trying to cast a spell, and I spent your turn preventing that spell which leaves me open on my turn to do something. Now, if we both had four lands in play and you cast a Black Cat. I counter it using Mana Leak (since you can’t pay the extra 3). Then at the end of your turn, I cast Think Twice.

Answers are always more powerful than threats.

This is the nature of Blue and counterspells.

There have been 14 non-Blue counterspells printed, and of those 14, four of them have been against Blue spells. Current in Standard Blue has 17 counterspells with three more coming in Avacyn Restored. If Blue is getting the only opportunity to get counterspells then of course players have come to rely on the color to help keep the format balanced (in a non-Blue way). If you’re looking at the other non-Blue way to deal with cards before they’re on the battlefield then Black has eight discard spells, and two more with Avacyn Restored.

Clearly countering spells is Blue’s thing. It’s always Blue’s thing, and it will always generate card (and mana) advantage.

What about my crazy suggestion of giving each color counterspells? Surely I can’t be serious. Oh I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that each color should have Counterspell. Each color should have a variation on a counterspell type effect that makes sense with the color. Some possible examples:

White Taxing – 1WW
Counter target spell unless its controller pays an additional 2.

Black Counter – 1BB
Counter target spell. You lose life equal to the converted mana cost of the countered spell.

Red Remand – 1RR
Counter target spell. If that spell is countered this way, put it into its owner’s hand instead of into that player’s graveyard.

Green Creature Protection – 1G
Creature – Elf Shaman
When this enters the battlefield, counter target spell that targets a creature or creature spell you control.

Obviously they are all a little bit different, but can fit within the restrictions Color Pie (which is important). White loves taxing, Black will do anything to make the game go its way, Red only cares about the short game, and Green wants to keep nature natural and is using creatures to protect itself.

No, these are not the ultimate answers and clearly they need to be thoroughly playested before they are published. Plus, spells like these shouldn’t be in every set, but maybe once a block or two. I do not want to change Magic to a counter war as I would absolutely hate to see that. But if problems of creatures and their enters the battlefield triggers are so big that we constantly have to look to Blue for answers, then something else must be done. Blue can and should still be the top color for counterspells (as each of these have a drawback).

I doubt we’re going to see less 187 creatures because they’re efficient and they keep the game interactive (a spell that can attack). But by people complaining that the game is becoming more broken because we’re removing the ability for one color to deal with one card type (and even then only of a chosen creature type) then something is broken, and it’s not the rest of the game.

You can’t give one color all the leverage in this situation. The threat of counterspells doesn’t mean that everything is fixed with the metagame. There’s a certain power with counterspells, and they’re an important part of what makes Magic special and fun. Blue’s history will always make the color good, we just have to find a way to help the other colors catch up.

And this is a starting point.


14 thoughts on “Cavern of Souls and the Counterspell Problem”

  1. I love this article , it is exactly what I have been pondering about this last couple of months … And why not ? it would be a refreshing change , and would bring a loads of fun to players worldwide 🙂

  2. I don’t think that every color should get counterspells, but there should be at least one more color getting them (not white, probably, since white has an already big portion of the color pie). Not just because blue shouldn’t be the only one having awnsers to powerful threats; but because being the only one able to interact with the stack creates an asymmetry, which is going make blue the best color every time the most powerful cards in the format are those which take effect pon resolving rather than requiring to stay in the battlefield,.since any answer other color could have becomes irrelevant due being only able to interact outside the stack.

    My take on which color should recieve counterspells would be red. From a color pie perspective, is the color that does the least (not much behind green) and r&d has already stated they are looking for additions. From flavor perspective, although counterspells are usually associated with wisdom and knowledge and that kind of thing the effect can represent the act of messing around with your opponent which is a very red thing (specially if we see the mischievous Devils come back instead of the direct and in my opinion a little overused Goblins).
    Green would be the next on the list (“stop the unnatural” flavor rather than “protect some/everyone” which is more of a white thing).

  3. Fundamentally, there are counterspells in each color, its just they don’t say ” Counter Target Spell “, they say ” Target creature gains protection from X until EOT ” or ” Target creature gets +X/X ” or ” Creatures you control are indestructible “. Lightning Bolt, for example, is functionally countered if you play Tireless Missionaries, or Lightning Helix, or attack with Baneslayer Angel.

    Personally I see countermagic as a nice catchall, protecting you and making the board state less hostile to the game you are wanting to play. The price for the flexibility is that you have to keep mana up and they are the worst topdeck lategame.

    Basically people are I guess upset they aren’t getting insane value of an e.g. Titan or something, as opposed to removing it immediately. If the creatures were less powerful and less resistant to removal, countermagic isn’t nearly as necessary. The main problem, I think, is that good players can use well placed countermagic (just like they can use well placed creatures or timing of effects) to win a game in a scripted fashion that makes players feel like it was unfair.


  4. Well, Red does have Reverberate from M12, which can copy any spell and potentially counter a Mana Leak or a Dissipate, but other than that it has nothing. Personally I’ll be running UR Control Burn Titan for that first week after Avacyn is released, and loading my deck up with whipflares and slagstorms to keep stuff off the board until a Titan can come out to play. That land will be crazy powerful, and will definitely see play in all formats I think. It will also combo up nicely with Alchemists Refuge (that gives all nonlands Flash).

  5. I agree on spreading counter magic around a bit more. Mana Leak effects in white fit the taxing and counters with draw backs in black (such as Dash Hopes, though not as severe of a drawback). I don’t think they belong in green or red though, barring specific circumstances (color hate like Red Elemental Blast and Guttural Response)

  6. Oh wow, I really liked this article and how you ran with it. Really thought provoking! However, given R&D’s attitudes towards counterspells in general (players want to cast spells), I really think its really remote that they’d have these variants printed.

  7. How’s this for a green counterspell?

    Temporary Trollshroud — 1G


    Target creature gains hexproof until EOT. If an opponent cast a spell this turn, draw a card.

    I think it works a lot like Spirit Mantle, which TECHNICALLY grants a creature unblockable, but does so in a white way.

  8. This article still prove, to me, that spells are more powerful than creatures. I mean, sure, the body is relevant, but you’re really playing a spell with a creature attached when you play the Titans most of the time, aren’t you? This is why the Titans are such a huge issue. If you don’t answer them, they get to cast the spell-effect of the Titan twice and then you’re so far behind in terms of advantage that there’s nothing you can do.

    Interacting on the stack is just as necessary as it was before. When they make effects that are that powerful, whether they be on 6/6s for 6 or 4-mana sorceries, counterspells are needed to balance them.

    1. In the case of Primeval Titan, you’re playing a creature which is really more like a Tooth and Nail, but for lands. But then those two lands are really more like a creature and a Hatred, respectively. So, creatures? Spells? Who knows!

  9. I think the problem isn’t mana leak exactly, or counters. Its more the need for spells like counters. Its the “don’t hate the player, hate the game” line. Titans only drawback is their cost, that’s it. They spell “game over” for anyone who can’t destroy them (which blue can’t). The dynamics of a counter-less blue is something we can only hypothesize about , but I imagine its over run by hex proof creatures that no one can interact with. The game needs blue to check things, and needs black to break combos, and red to burn things, and white to do everything.

  10. I disagree with “Answers are always more powerful than threats.”. Let’s look at all possible scenarios. “I have a threat, you don’t have an answer” – you die. “I have a threat, you have an answer” – parity. “I have no threat, you have an answer” – answer is usualles, you don’t win either; parity, “I have no threat, you have no answer” – parity.
    Answers don’t win you the game, only threats do. Also the counterspelling example is misleading, because to be able to counter a spell on your turn i usually have to timewalk myself, e. g. do nothing on my turn before that. If you don’t cast a threat or a threat i can’t answer i spent a whole turn doing nothing besides (hopefully) making a landdrop.

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