Sunday, 5 June 2016
The Decline of Countermagic
Firstly let me be clear as the title may be misleading, counterspells are still very very good, they are just not as good as they once were, hence the decline. They have not declined to a point where they are weak nor do I expect them to. The best way to describe the change is to compare them to black discard effects like Thoughtsieze, Duress and Inquisition. These are cards that are used to help out against problem cards like Umezawa's Jitte. Black has difficulty removing it, everyone has difficulty beating it and so you make life a lot easier if on turn one you pluck it from their hand. What you cannot do is rely on your discard as a complete solution to the Jitte or any other problem card. They can always top deck the problem and evade your discard. Ideally therefore a good black deck will have some discard to hedge against these problem cards and then it will have a dash of other things that can help out retrospectively. In the case of Jitte this might just be a bunch of creature removal so as to stall out one that resolves. These discard effects have diminishing returns as well, later in the game they can be dead draws. Each subsequent discard spell you play that can hit a card will add less to your odds of stopping any given thing than the previous discard spell gave.
Back in the day it felt like you could almost entirely rely on a heavy base of counterspells to solve the problems your deck might face. Threats were weaker, cost more, less tenacious and decks were more synergy driven than raw power based. This meant more irrelevant cards like Zuran Orb that you didn't need to do anything about while now most cards are relevant in most games most of the time. A control deck could be mostly countermagic with a couple of threats, a bit of card draw and a few bits of removal that just wound up being more efficient than using more countermagic on the things you would use them on. This would get the job done six or so years ago. Now it doesn't, you need really powerful, diverse and effective removal so as to deal with the myriad of things you can face off against that will just kill you, from Gods to manlands to planeswalkers to persistent creatures, hexproof ones, indestructible ones, all of which are coming down at much cheaper costs relative to countermagic than ever before. You also need more threats of your own at all points of the curve so as to have some hope at keeping pace with the tempo of the game. Things like Blade Splicer are much more commonly seen in control lists because it is a much more effective way of dealing with a lot of threats than countering them or killing them. By playing more removal and more threats you have less room for countermagic which is all well and good if you appreciate it. Flipped around, if you play too much countermagic you will not have sufficient removal or threats and will roll over to most midrange and aggro decks.
Countermagic used to be something you could have as your game plan, now it has to support another plan. The correct numbers for countermagic in a typical deck far more resembles those for discard spells now than it used to. Discard has diminishing returns because of how they are useless on an empty hand yet they bring that state about more rapidly. Countermagic has diminishing returns whenever you fall behind. Drawing a counterspell when there is a 3/3 smashing in your face does nothing to help you. It has always been the case that drawing countermagic when you need an answer to something in play is bad, the significant change is that there are so many more dangerous threats that are unreasonably cheap or are uncounterable or even just have flash and decks have a higher density of them within decks. The Zendikar man lands had quite a big impact on the performance of countermagic. Other cards along the way have chipped away at it too.
While using cards like Bladesplicer is a great solution to things like Goblin Guide, Kitchen Finks and Treetop Village it not only takes the slot of a counterspell but also makes other counterspells weaker in your deck. The same is true of any sorcery speed solution, the player relying too hard on contermagic for protection is left pants down whenever they spend too much mana in their turn. This effect is self perpetuating, once you are playing some things you will need to tap out for you find some of your instant speed cards become less appealing compared to more sorcery speed stuff. Tap out style control decks are some of the most successful at the moment, they still play blue, still have card draw and control mechanics but they are robust enough to cope with most things well enough that they don't need the universal denial of countermagic. The next most successful form of blue control decks play no more than four counterspells of which some are multipurpose or soft. It is not at all uncommon for a deck to just play one Negate or Arcane Denial plus something like a Remand supplemented with either a Cryptic Command or Mystic Confluence as a late game option on more counter magic. That sort of balance keeps your opponents honest but doesn't cost you in tempo or options. Countermgic is at its most powerful when you are able to have most of your stuff instant speed and spent very little mana on your turns. That is harder and harder to do well and so decks are simply not as well suited to ramming them full of counterspells.
I make it sound like control decks never used to have to tap out, this is not at all true. Wrath has always been a control staple and a sorcery speed effect for the most part. The difference is much more in how such things were used and are now used. If you don't have stuff on the board you commonly find yourself needing to Wrath in a way that is effectively a 1 for 1 trade, you are often Wrathing things that cost less total mana than the Wrath and you also commonly find things left behind after a Wrath. Back in the day you only needed to Wrath early, like before you could do so with countermagic backup, if that Wrath was going to be getting you a 3 for 1 anyway. Those kinds of Wrath are so devastating that it doesn't matter nearly as much that you leave yourself a turn of vulnerability. Counterspells have always been weak against dangerous cheap things but dangerous cheap things used to be highly vulnerable to Wraths. Wraths have changed somewhat in their utility, they are still great cards and still see a lot of play but it is the change in how Wraths effect the game that has had such a notable effect on countermagic. Wraths are just a way to keep people honest, they are not that far off glorified spot removal that scales well against greed! Wing Shards, even Arc Trail seem like they kill more actual cards worth of creatures than Wrath of God does these days! Wraths and countermagic used to cover evreything between them enough, now they don't and so you need a much smoother transition and balance of things filling in the spectrum between those two somewhat polar and distinct type of effect.
The decline in countermagic has gone hand in hand with the decline of Wrath effects but they have manifest this decline differently. For countermagic it is a decline in the ratios you want to play, they have declined in numbers. Wraths are still played about as much, they just do less than they used to! It is the tenacity and increased power of threats that has caused both counters and Wraths to decline. It is not just that threats are better but also there are more of them. Before your threats were threats, your answers were answers, your land were land and your card advantage was just card advantage. Now, especially due to planeswalkers, you can find that all of these groups of cards will contain threats in them. Conscrated Sphinx and Jaces have broadly replaced cards like Fact or Fiction. Cards like Karn Liberated, Domri Rade, Polukranos and so sit in part in the removal slots for your decks. There are substantially more manlands than before, good and powerful ones as well as utility lands like Wolf Run that can end games too.
All this analysis can be summarised into two bits of advice. The first I have already given and that is to treat countermagic more like black discard effects than anything else. The second is simply to build decks that can win without counterspells and only once you have done that start filling it out with some counters. If your control deck can't beat certain cards without countering them then that is going to make life quite difficult.