Sunday 31 August 2014

Updated Top 16 Blue Counterspells

Being gamers we tend to love a lists. It gives us the chance to make our own lists and compare and contrast them against one another. Lists are a good way to quantify ones opinions. Once quantified we can then subject those opinions to more analysis. If you find your list to be very similar to someone else's except for one card it is a clue that one of you is overrating or undervaluing that card. A list without any justification however is far less relevant unless you are already familiar with the opinions of the the person presenting the list. Without a justification then you will not be able to convince people to alter their perspective of a card when you do have discrepencies between your lists. It presents questions without offering any answers or directions to find them.

A good list also need a clear description of the criteria considered in the forming of the list. “The best” is a very subjective term and to be appreciated usefully the term wants to be broken down into a meaningful outline of what constitutes better. I stipulated blue in the title, this was merely so I didn't have to work out where Mana Tithe fits into the mix and spend a lot of convoluted time discussing the implications of a functional reprint in a different colour. Gold counterspells, provided they contained blue, where considered for the list and a couple were fairly close but didn't quite make it. The other description used for this list is simply “top” which is synonomous for best. I have a fairly specific meaning in mind for this in that I do not mean the best card but instead am focusing on the functionality of the card as a Counterspell. How easy is it to play? How effective is it a preventing spells? How good of a position does it leave you in? It was this nature of focusing in on the counterspell aspect of cards that ultimately kicked Dimir and Izzet Charms out of the top sixteen. While they are powerful and diverse cards they are unreliable and somewhat inefficient as counterspells. The utility of them does count in their favour as counterspells but far less so than it would do so in a simple card review. A different example of this would be that I rate Lightning Helix as a very powerful card but only as a fairly average burn spell.

Counterspells are popular, powerful and iconic cards that are relvatively easy in Magic terms to compare and contrast due to their specific nature. Comparing burn spells is even easier than counterspells but something broad in scope like creatures are very tough to compare as they do wildly different things. Without further preamble I shall start to present the list, starting at the bottom, complete with a discussion about the cards performance within the cube.

  1. Spell Snare

Spell SnareSpell Snare is a very powerful and highly efficient counterspell. It is playable from turn one and loses no real power over the course of the game compared to cards like Force Spike and Mana Leak. Making sweeping statements in Magic is dangerous however I can safely say that every (viable) cube deck will have two drops in it thus making Spell Snare highly playable. Certainly some decks will have far more targets and some will have more important targets meaning some variance in the performance of the card based on matchup but this can be expected with most cards. At its best Spell Snare is one of the more powerful cards on this list and at its worst it is still better than the majority of the cards when they are worst case scenario. There are several reasons why Spell Snare, despite all its qualities has ended up at the bottom of the pile and presently doesn't have a slot in my cube. Firstly it is a card that is vastly superior when you are on the draw than it is when you are on the play. It can totally save you against a powerful tempo opener on the draw while on the play it is far less likely to give you a significant advantage. On the play I would almost always have a counterspell that had more potential targets even if it cost two. The result of all this was having lots of fiddling around side boarding to optimise decks which frankly got tedious. Not to mention a card that saw a lot less play due to being cut when possible on the play. The second big flaw I find in Spell Snare is that it serves very little specific purpose in the cube, you never play it really to deal with something generic as you might with a Disenchant or Negate effect. You don't play it as a one drop as you might with Force Spike as it isn't a useful one drop when on the play as discussed. You play a certain number of counterspells in decks that want them as they are decent coverall security and disruption however Spell Snare is too limited in its targets to be a good coverall or security card. You cannot really give away your counterspell slots to a card like Spell Snare and maintain the same level of control over a game. Almost all the reasons to play Spell Snare are contextual rather than archetypal. You play it when you need to counter their two mana combo card, when you are on the draw or when they are an agro deck with over 25% of their list costing two mana. It is rare that you construct a deck that can consistently take advantage of a cheap yet specific hard counter, the only guarenteed advantage of is that you will have spent half the mana your oppenent did. It would need to be a tempo deck with card advantage and/or quality in reasonable abundance that still had sufficient room for reactive non-specific disruption. It is a personal choice but I like to advocate cards that reward and promote good deck construction and design which Spell Snare rarely does.

  1. Pact of NegationPact of Negation

When you are a combo deck, or when you are any deck about to win the game Pact of Negation is the very best card to have. It stops basically anything a counterspell can, which is most things, and costs you no mana to play. These were my main two criteria in assessing the strength of a counterspell and so Pact of Negation is the best of the best in an optimal situation. Combo features little in most cubes and the non-combo decks will spend the majority of their game time not on the verge of winning. This means you have to consider the upkeep cost of Pact of Negation for the majority of decks you might consider playing it in. Three is a lot of mana to pay to counter something in the cube, five is incredibly painful. It is unusable normally until you have your five mana and can still present a risk of death once you have five should they have any way to disrupt your mana production. Typically the kinds of deck that want coverall counterspells also want to leave mana up to be reactive, having to tap five mana in your upkeep will make the turns following a Pact of Negation deeply uncomfortable until you have lots and lots of mana. Although the best when it is good, it is close to the nut low when not optimal. I do not have Pact of Negation in my cube presently however its value rapidly increases as the number of suitable archetypes for it increases and with cube design being as diverse as it is you can easily include more of those archetypes from one of a few different approaches. Pact of Negation is unlike most other counterspells in that it is one that you only really play to force other things through. It should not frequently be played as a coverall answer or a good control card.

Mental Misstep14. Mental Misstep

Mental Misstep is similar to Spell Snare in many ways and is generally lighter on viable and powerful targets, yet it achieves a higher ranking than the Snare. This is because it is a purposive card, you can put it in a deck and improve that deck with no prior knowledge of your opponents deck or who is on the play. Misstep feels more like Force Spike than Spell Snare when you play it and has many of the same qualities and requirements when being built into a deck. Both Force Spike and Misstep are likely to be hard counters for an opponents first turn play. The value of having them or drawing them however declines as the game progresses, although with Misstep it is not because the counter becomes easier to avoid but because the targets for it have been used or cease to be overly relevant themselves. To maximise the power of Mental Misstep in a deck you are advised to have some filer and/or card quality effects so that you can replace it once its value is diminished. To get a mana advantage out of the card you have to pay two life however the strength of the card is not so much that you can be one mana better off than your opponent over an exchange but that you can make the exchange when you have no spare mana. Both Mental Misstep and Spell Snare are opportunistic cards that you want to have open as often as possible so as to maximise their somewhat limited range of targets. To do this with Spell Snare can be uncomfortable and even obvious while with Misstep you can happily tap out with added safety. As with Pact of Negation you can also play Misstep off colour however the latter will be of greater use throughout the game and far more likely as a result to find itself in a non blue deck. Despite this it tends to be the blue decks that play it as it is such an effective way to bolster your early game when you lack low curve cards which is something blue struggles with more than the other colours in Magic. Also when you are concerned about early tempo you are also likely going to be concerned about life and so not having the painless cast option does detract from the appeal of the card. The main thing I have against Mental Misstep is that there are many viable decks without any one drops and plenty more without any concerning one drop plays. This makes Mental Misstep a little unreliable which reduces the amount it gets played.

  1. Mana LeakMana Leak

Dull but fairly effective. Only when you reach super late game top deck mode does Mana Leak cease to be a reliable counterspell. You can play around Force Spike fairly easily but trying to have three spare mana after doing something useful is a tall order. In the early game Mana Leak is better than Actual Counterspell as it is almost always a hard counter and is less demanding on your mana. Although this is a very strong and reliable card the few times it does not do what you want it to really hurt. Those times when Counterspell wins the game but Mana Leak loses it stick with you and make you resent the Leak. Mana Leak will always be the poor mans Counterspell. When you need it you play it but it is almost always because you failed to get something else better that you could play instead. Mana Leak is at least the first card so far on this last to be played in the capacity you would expect counterspells to be played in – when you need cheap reactive coverall security. The only thing you really need to bear in mind when playing it is that it scales poorly compared to many counterspell options as the game progresses. Not to the same extreme rate that Force Spike drops in power but in a format as explosive and powerful as the cube Mana Leak will be getting weaker faster than you might expect. With this knowledge it is best to play the Mana Leak earlier where possible and sensible. Playing with Mana Leak will also increase the power of your card quality and filter effects. It might seem with this in mind that Miscalculation is the more potent card for this role within the cube as it does much the same thing but with a built in card filter mechanism. After much testing it turned out that Miscalculation was closer to Force Spike in terms of its poor scaling into the late game than it was to Mana Leak. Having to pay one more mana gets a surprisingly large amount more done in the mid game. Miscalculation would either trade fairly evenly, be used on something of low significance simply to get it used before it was dead or get instantly cycled. It is a playable cube card but it isn't very efficient or effective which is not sufficiently compensated for by its cycling. Mana Leak does an awful lot more of the thing you are playing the card to do than Miscalculation and turns out to be a fair chunk better in the cube as a result!

Forbid12. Forbid

I earlier stated that three mana was a lot to pay for a counterspell in the cube despite it being a fair price for a universal hard counter in most other formats. This applies to Forbid which does not see huge quantities of play as a result. Forbid has a powerful built in recursion effect than can even be used to your advantage should you need a discard outlet however it really requires you to have some kind of engine built around it otherwise it is too onerous on your resources to be an efficient answer. It is also an expensive way on mana, not just cards, to try and control a game. Needing an engine makes Forbid a somewhat narrow card although not to the same extent as Pact of Negation. One thing strongly in the favour of Forbid in the cube as opposed to any other format is that there being only one copy of any given card there is quite a sharp tail off in the quality of groups of spells. Very few cube worthy counterspells will hit any kind of spell and counter it regardless of how much mana your opponent has spare. Even fewer counterspells that are on the cheaper side of things. This leaves Forbid at about the fourth best universal hard counter under four mana that has no extra costs attached to it. You could argue Dissipate was better however it has no extra utility and is just a three mana counterspell thus rendering too weak for cube. It is the extra buyback of utility that secures it a cube slot however it is the fact it is just another hard counter that plugs a hole that gets it a lot of its play time. Forbid scales in a fairly unusual pattern as the game progresses compared to all the other counterspells. In the super late game, the point at which land draws are basically dead draws, Forbid suddenly starts to gain a lot more value even when used in decks with no engines or intent to abuse the buyback. Another perk that Forbid has going for it is that it offers lots of choices when played which makes for better games and a greater test of skill. There are those matchups that revolve around a few key cards, you might chose to buyback a Forbid on turn three pitching two useful cards because you have no other answers in hand to the remaining key cards they have. This kind of play would almost always be wrong against an agro deck full of redundancy or a control deck where the card advantage is too important but there will be matchups where it is right to do as well something no other counterspell can offer.

  1. Memory LapseMemory Lapse

This is a beastly little proactive counterspell come disruption spell. Part Chittering Rat and part Remand the Memory Lapse is an unusual card that finds different uses and homes than the other counterspells. Like all good counterspells Memory Lapse goes one for one with a card and stops a thing happening. Like some of the best counterspells it can stop any counterable spell it chooses for the bargain price of two mana. Placing the card back on top of the library is somewhat of a mixed blessing although intended as a drawback compared to Actual Counterspell. Most of the time you want the thing you are countering gone and so them just getting to cast it again next turn is rather tedious. If however the spell you manage to place back on top is one that is only useful because of the stage of the game such as a ramp spell then you have gained a huge advantage, greater that you would have gotten from putting that card in the graveyard. A turn two ramp spell is powerful because of what you can do with four mana on turn three however a ramp spell does very little unless you are accelerating into something else. Not only will you have disrupted their turn three power play but you will have decreased their card quality by replacing a draw with an out of curve card that is not of much use. The optimal targets for Memory Lapse are low powered card that have situational high value at certain timings within the game. This can also be applied to high powered cards that are trying to be resolved in a high mana window, say a card played from the mana boost gained via a Dark Ritual, a Mana Vault or a Channel. Obviously they will not have sufficient mana in their next turn to just recast the spell in question and so they will have a dead draw coming their way. Memory Lapse is also pretty much a hard counter when used to force something through and/or when you can win the game in that turn as a result, a little like Pact of Negation. The main thing holding Memory Lapse back within this rating is that it is rather a win more card. When you opponent is a bit behind, either they are struggling for lands and need to draw them or they are a little flooded and are only able to cast low curve spells of little consequence then Memory Lapse will really punish them and act a little like a Time Walk. When you are behind however it is not doing that much to bail you out of the situation. With all this taken into account I much prefer to play Memory Lapse in the proactive decks than can apply pressure and get on the front foot. I also like to try and maximise the negative effects it will have on my opponents by appropriately pairing it with disruption effects such as Wastelands so as to increase my odds of them having mana difficulties. If your deck is predominantly responsive then Memory Lapse will under perform for you but is still viable just an early tool capable or drawing out the game.

Negate10. Negate

This simple little card has greatly risen in my estimations over the past couple of years. It is cheap and reliably does what you predominantly want counter magic to do. Every colour has the capacity to deal with creatures all be it with varying effectiveness. Very few colours have the ability to prevent spells from resolving. Black can pluck them from you hand, white can make casting spells awkward while the best red or green can do to curtail casting is to attack the mana base. The variance in ability between the colours to deal with creatures is negligible when compared to the variance across the colours in their capacity to combat spell casting. It is one of the reasons blue stands out as the most powerful colour in Magic. It is nice that a lot of counterspells can deal with creatures however it is not the reason you are playing them, nor is it really efficient or even viable to attempt to control creature strategies with countermagic alone. A good control list will have dedicated parts of the deck tailored to efficiently deal with creatures thus allowing you to reserve your counterspells for things that you need them against such as Armageddon, planeswalkers, Mind Twist and so forth. When you are playing counter magic specifically as a solution to those kinds of problem then Negate is about as good as it gets. In the various three or more coloured versions of UG control decks I would always chose to play a Negate over an Actual Counterspell, those kinds of deck have an unrivalled ability to deal with permanents while coloured mana is more of an issue. I will usually also play Negate over Mana Leak in any sort of control deck as it scales better into the late game and you don't want to be using it on creatures as discussed. You have to be pretty sure you are safe against creatures to do this and it is marginal at best, mostly a personal preference for reliability in cards doing what I want them to do.

  1. DazeDaze
Pesky and cheeky are the words that spring to mind when thinking about Daze. It is a beautifully designed card that is impressively diverse in use and leads to a lot of complex decision making for both you and your opponent while remaining simple, elegant and remarkably fair. It ticks a few boxes immediately in that it is a spell with different casting options as well as a zero mana spell should you chose it to be. Free countermagic demands close attention and unlike most other free countermagic Daze has no associated card disadvantage. Sometimes returning an island will be far more painful than throwing away some cards from hand and sometimes it will be irrelevant. The scaling of this effect is the opposite it's scaling of raw countering power, part of the elegance of the design. As returning a land becomes less detrimental a Force Spike becomes less effective. It is hard to know how important it is to keep your land count up compared to the spell you are considering countering. The fact that Daze can become completely dead in the late game or even when your opponent has a good read on you puts pressure on you to use it early. Whenever you do get to Daze something you feel like you have done well out of the exchange but this is more a reflection of the low nominal power of its effect and not because you inherently gain value from casting it like you do with a Cryptic Command. The real strength of Daze lies in how difficult and damaging it is to play around, in essence it is at its best when your opponent knows you have one but you don't have it in hand. Compared to Force Spike it is harder to read if they have a Daze in hand or not, they never need to leave mana open to be able to cast it and are able to tap out with impunity. It is easy to play around Force Spike or Daze but does really hurt your early game tempo to do so. If they are representing the Force Spike then generally playing around it is OK as they are not spending all their mana or curing out optimally either. If you try to play around a Daze in the early game in the same way you will just find yourself getting really behind. Mostly I think it is correct to just ignore Daze and walk into it hoping your opponent will overeagerly ruin their early tempo in a bad use of the card! As with most of the early game non-hard counterspells in the cube, Daze is improved when you have decent filter and card quality effects as well. It is at is best in tempo decks wanting to pose questions but still have some answers up their sleve but is still very strong in control decks although it does need much more care to be used in a beneficial way. In control the best application for Daze is to add security to making a mid game permanent such as a planeswalker, earlier use, unless hard cast, is too damaging to your tempo.

Spell Pierce8. Spell Pierce

Although the difference in mana you pay and that your opponent is forced to pay extra between Spell Pierce and Mana Leak are the same it is far more about the relative difference and not the nominal difference. With Mana Leak they are forced to pay 50% more mana than you paid to cast the Leak. With Spell Pierce they have to pay 100% more mana than you. Obviously Mana Leak hits more targets than Spell Pierce, which has Negate restrictions on it, they are not directly comparable cards. The point was to illustrate the strength of Spell Pierce's effect. The real reason it is better than Mana Leak is that it is a one mana counterspell. All the same reasons as to why Negate is very strong despite not hitting creatures also applies to Spell Pierce. Spell Pierce is often lumped in with cards like Force Spike more than it would be with Mana Leak and Negate which is a mistake as it is near impossible to sensibly play around Spell Pierce in the early and mid game. As such it is an incredibly efficient spell with a lot of raw countering power for the mana. It gives you a lot of options and security to do things that little earlier. It is often a case of being able to have Spell Pierce and another counterspell up at the same time for very little mana yet high chances of covering everything you need them too. Spell Pierce also scales better into the late game than all the other one and zero mana soft counters. Often against control in the late game there will be turns where you need to try and resolve multiple things so as to force something through and so often the Spell Pierce is the nail in the coffin. It is a brutal card to face as a combo or a control player and it is rarely a bad draw against agro decks. It hits the important things you should be playing it for with a high chance of success at a bargain price of one mana. It is just the right balance of having enough targets while being hard enough for the price.
  1. Counterspell

It may seem fairly shocking to have Actual Counterspell only ranking in at number seven on this list so allow me to justify this claim. Firstly it is more onerous on your mana base (in a two or more colour deck) to cast Counterspell on turn two than it is to cast a Cryptic Command on turn four. Despite scaling very very well into the late game Counterspell is usually weaker than Mana Leak, Remand, Memory Lapse and Arcane Denial in the early game. It is also far harder to engineer added advantage out of Counterspell than it is for all of that list except for Mana Leak. Counterspell simply trades one for one with a card of theirs, it will not draw you into your important cards nor deny them draws. It cannot be used in tricky ways to generate you card advantage or storm. The reason Counterspell is so highly regarded is that it is as cheap as you can get a guarenteed counterspell for any target. In a very loose comparion you could say Counterspell was the Vindicate equivalent while other counterspells would represent cards like Abrupt Decay and Desert Twister. Much like Vindicate the strength of Counterspell is due to the broad range it has however its effectiveness is entirely based on how you use it. Sometimes you are forced into a situation where you need to blow your Vindicate/Counterspell on a cheaper card that you have far more efficient alternate ways to answer thus making them seem underwhelming. You ideally want to be a little ahead or at least have multiple ways to deal with any given problem available to you so you are never forced into trading your Counterspell for a weak card. Another thing to be wary of with counterspells in general although most notably with Actual Counterspell is that you can easily fall behind if relying on them as an answer to things. You need to have mana open so as to be able to play Counterspell. If you opponent is able to use their mana for things you don't want to or can't Counterspell and just sit on the thing you need to counter then you will be getting further and further behind. We all know Counterspell is good but we often overlook its inherent limitations and weaknesses and thus fail to play around it or overplay it in our decks. You cannot win with counter magic alone, the deck of only counterspells beats nothing. You want the minimum number of counterspells in your deck to ensure you are safe against all the possible things that are dangerous to you. If you overplay them assuming they are a generic answer you will come unstuck in various ways over your games. It is easy to die to the one drop that resolved or the man land you couldn't touch with a hand full of countermagic. It is also easy to die despite having equal counter magic to the cards they play jsut not having sufficient mana to cast all your counters when you needed them which is a depressing way to go.
  1. Force Spike
Force Spike
This little gem is especially powerful in cube where the fast pace and high power level give Force Spike perfect conditions to shine. There are three main reasons the Spike is such a top rate counterspell. Firstly it is a one drop that has a desirable effect against all decks in a colour lacking early plays. Secondly it has the capacity to be as effective as Actual Counterspell for half the mana which in itself is a strong effect but also means that any time you stop a spell with Force Spike you feel like you have gained value which is rarely the case when your Actual Counterspell is baited out on a lowly one drop. God forbid you manage to hit a more costly relevant card with a Force Spike! The last reason the Force Spike is strong is the Daze effect where by your opponents damage themselves by playing around the card. It is well worth a dead card in your hand from the outset to be able to deny them a mana for any turn you can leave mana up. This means you are getting unbelievable value when you haven't even drawn it and they chose to play around it. The only real drawback to Force Spike is that it relatively quickly becomes a dead card against most decks. Often I find this trade off is well worth the various perks Force Spike brings to the table however it is also a very easily offset downside when you have ways of putting it to alternate use. This can just as easily be pitching it to play a Force of Will as it can be discarding it to a looting effect which are effects blue has in abundance. A card such as Spell Pierce you play when you need specific solutions however Force Spike is playable much more generally as a way to improve your early game and tempo capabilities.

  1. RemandRemand

Oddly Remand is about as soft a counterspell as you will find on this list with even the likes of Force Spike fairly frequently being able to get your opponents cards in the bin. This being a list based primarily on the countering effectiveness of cards, and Remand being the least likely to ultimately stop something should go a long way to showing quite how powerful the card is overall. So frequently when cast you feel like you just got to Time Walk your opponent. It is all about the tempo that Remand offers rather than its use as an answer to something. Remand is cheap and easy to cast and has a broad a range of targets as Actual Counterspell. It disrupts your opponent yet replaces itself with another card thus advancing you towards you ultimate game plan. Like Daze it has some counteractive scaling where by it is easier to replay cards in the same turn as the game goes on however you also tend to hit higher mana cost targets as the game goes on as well thus making the gained value greater. Unlike Daze it never becomes close to a dead card due to the inbuilt cycling so even if you are Remanding a Lotus Petal you are not that behind as a result. Remand is a card that stays strong throughout the game, is never bad when it is at its worst and is one of the best things you can play when there are optimal conditions for it. Rarely do you care that much what you are countering with Remand, you care most about how much of their turns resources it took to play what you countered. There are of course occasions when you can combine Remand with some other disruption such as discard to fully deal with something but this is not what you should be trying to do with the card. Although on its own the Remand does not solve any real problems it does provide both time and information which if put to good use can enable you to negate the card in question through play rather than needing a specific answer. The information aspect of Remand is almost always overlooked yet it is a significant perk and helps push the card into the big league of blue disruption. Remand is great in both agro and control decks as it is one of those few cards that offers tempo at no loss of card advantage.

Cryptic Command4. Cryptic Command

While Cryptic Command is only fourth on this list it is probably the second best card overall rather than specifically as a counterspell. Most of the time when being a counterspell Cryptic is just an awkward costing Dismiss, a card which isn't close to cube quality. In that sort of a role Remand is the vastly more desirable card, you want countermagic to deal with stuff cheaply and efficiently, you play card advantage spells to provide the late game inevitability and so you are just harming your own disruptive power by trying to combine the two into one overcost card. Returning to the options Cryptic Command offers, it is rare that you get to tap all their guys and usefully counter a spell. If you need to tap all their creatures you are in need of solutions to permanents. Rather than counter one of the many problem cards such as a haste creature or an equipment that is frequently cast pre-combat you are likely just going to be better off partially negating the spells effect along with the other creatures by using the tap effect and digging for a real answer for everything with the draw option. Counterspell and Boomerang combination is handy but is also a little clumsy to pull off usefully in terms of timings not working out optiamlly for it. Cryptic Command would still be a versatile and powerful card even if you always had to chose counterspell as one of the options but if that were the case you go from a card with 6 options to one with 3. The three options that include draw a card as one of the choices tend to be the three most commonly played as well meaning that Cryptic is used as a counterspell less than you might expect, and when it is it is usually just a Dismiss. If you can take two thirds of the best uses for a card away along with half its overall utility and still have a playable card then it suggests a lot about the power of that card in the first place. Cryptic Command is never dead and always puts you ahead of where you were after you cast it. It is an answer to most things and can often simulate that desirable Time Walk quality. As a counterspell it is reliable, versatile and powerful but at the cost of being obvious and cumbersome. As we are all to aware however it is far far more of a card than just a mere counterspell.

  1. Arcane DenialArcane Denial

A personal favourite of mine as well as a card somewhat under the radar. Arcane Denial never made much of an impact on constructed formats of the time as it was around at the same time as many of the other strongest counterspells and being so old it has never been able to feature in the more current extended formats. As with Force Spike, the powerful and fast paced nature of the cube improves the usefulness of Arcane Denial. You actually lose card advantage by countering one of their spells with Arcane Denial as they get to draw two cards while you only draw one which this can be vary from being disasterous to being irrelevant. Fortunately the trend is far closer to the irrelevant end of the spectrum than the disasterous end. If the card you countered is twice the average usefulness of the average draw for that deck then you are ahead. As you get to chose what you counter you will tend to only counter high value targets so as to minimise the relative drawback. Decks without redundancy are far more vulnerable to the Arcane Denial as far fewer cards will be important at any given time. On the other hand a deck like red deck wins where all the cards are similar in effect and power level you are unlikely to be getting ahead casting the Arcane Denial on their spells. The main reason Arcane Denial is so good is that it helps your deck get to where it wants to be while simultaneously stopping your opponents deck doing exactly what it wants to do regardless of what that might be. Arcane Denial is the cheapest and easiest to cast of all the hard counters without a target restriction and it replaces itself thus helping you continue to curve out and have the appropriate kinds of card. Arcane Denial also tends to provide you with a tempo edge, not only is the card cheap and therefore usually answering something of greater cost but it also tends to let you untap and use the card drawn from it before your opponent. Like both Remand and Memory Lapse, Arcane Denial is a powerful tempo disruption tool however unlike both it is also a single card answer to most things as well. I will almost always play Arcane Denial over Actual Counterspell if I am more than one colour or I care more about getting to the mid / late game more than I just want to control a game. The thing that pushes Arcane Denial over the top in terms of all round goodness is that you can put it to effective use even against red deck wins where the card disadvantage is too dangerous. If you counter one of your own spells then you get both the draw triggers giving you all three cards in the next upkeep. Although not quite two mana to draw three cards as you have play another card costing you some mana and netting you one less card overall it is still a potent card draw spell. Arcane Denial is cheap, reliable, effective in several roles as a counterspell and has added utility as card advantage on top of that. More so than most of the other cards on this list it lets you outplay your opponent as well which is always an indication of good card design.

  1. Mana Drain
Mana Drain
While easily the most abusable and powerful card on the list in the role of a counterspell it is just Counterspell. I eventually cut Mana Drain from the cube along with the other power cards as I found it not only too powerful but far too random and swingy. At its worst it was an awkward Counterspell (real men still take mana burn) however at its best you would get to flop a Wurmcoil Engine into play on turn three or four often with counterspell backup as well. While the cube is all about powerful things there is the fun kind of power that arises from good play and card synergy and then there is the not fun kind of power that occasionally gives you free wins. Mana Drain is of the latter form of power. Mana Drain does benefit from complementary deck design which is basically useful ways to expend an influx of colourless mana but beyond this it is very good in any kind of deck. Even ramp decks that normally have minimal disruption love a mana Drain because it is also such a powerful accelerator.

  1. Force of WillForce of Will

When you absolutely positively need to counter that spell, accept no substitute. While perhaps the AK47 is not the appropriate gun analogy for this card Force of Will is the countermagic you most want to be armed with. A hard counter with no target restrictions and two casting modes makes for a lovely combination. The pitch cost is fair and easily supportable without letting you ignore it in deck design. The normal cost is expensive but still functional as a late game answer and stops it from restricting your potential plays. Force of Will is the ultimate in safety, it is not the power of what it does for you when you finally cast it that makes it incredible but all of the things it lets you do with reduced risk because you have it in hand up to that point. Tap out to make a threat, no problem. Cast a main phase draw spell to carry on making lands drops, why not! You can't even really play around it that effectively. It is always going to be there waiting for the spell you don't want it to hit. Another way to assess the power of Force of Will relative to other counterspells is to consider how good it is at each turn of the game and then average those powers (you either need to stop at turn 6 or 7 or apply less weighting to the later turns for this to be an effective way to compare cards however I simply like data in graphical form and this is the most appropriate way to do so for countermagic). Force Spike starts off very strong but quickly becomes the weakest. Actual Counterspell flat lines for the first turn then starts to get steadily better from turn two onwards. Force of Will however starts out strong and stays strong as the game goes on, in our graphical form it has the greatest area under its curve! In some matchps the turn one Aether Vial is the scariest play that is most important to stop, in others the seven mana Karn Liberated, on all the various scary important spells to stop Force of Will offers you the best or near best odds on stopping it. It is a get out of jail free card. You do have to have sufficient cards to pitch to it which not only means blue cards but also means cards you can afford to lose. If your only ways to win are a couple of top end blue monsters then you can't really include all of them in your total options. The same obviously also applies to pieces of a combo. It is cards like Force Spike you are happiest to be pitching as they are only strong within a certain window in the game. The more blue disposable or redundant cards you are playing the better Force of Will is however it can still be very powerful even with as few as 8 other blue cards to pitch (in a 40 card deck). It is great in control where it gives you great security, it is great in agro where it offers powerful tempo swings and it is great in combo where it allows you to force through spells and protect combo pieces while also going off at top speed. It offers very little above and beyond being a counterspell but it is the very best at being a counterspell and therefore is also one of the best cards there is for allowing you to dictate the flow of a game.

    16. Spell Snare
    15. Pact of Negation
    14. Mental Misstep
    13. Mana Leak
    12. Forbid
    11. Memory Lapse
    10. Negate
    9. Daze
    8. Spell Pierce
    7. Counterspell
    6. Force Spike
    5. Remand
    4. Cryptic Command
    3. Arcane Denial
    2. Mana Drain
    1. Force of Will

Honourable mentions

Muddle the Mixture
Mindbreak Trap
Izzet Charm
Dimir Charm

FoilI always feel very guilty leaving out cool and powerful cards from a list such as this and feel obliged to at least mention those that were also considered. On this occasion we are already fairly deep so I shall mention a few of the key aspects of the honourable mentions.

Foil is the best of this bunch and very nearly got the last spot on this list over Spell Snare. It shares many qualities with Force of Will while also having a better normal cost. Sadly having an island spare is far harder than having a blue card spare as well as much more painful to lose. Then you need another card in addition to this meaning you have three for oned yourself. Most control decks can't afford this level of card disadvantage even if they can support the island requirement. The end result is a powerful card that is rather narrow based on so few decks being able to support it as well as wanting it.

Thwart is the super Daze however it is even narrower than Foil. You need to basically be mono blue as well as having both alternate mana sources and lots of other cheap permanents to be able to support Thwart without it crippling you. For a free counterspell you also can't use it before turn three which takes away a lot of its appeal. Despite only going in a few possible archetypes it is very powerful in them being a zero mana hard counterspell with no target restrictions, an acceptable normal cost and no associated card disadvantage for the pitch cost.

Muddle the Mixture is a fair and elegant card that is the perfect card for the occasional deck but is generally to cumbersome and narrow to be preferable to things like Negate. Miscalculation has already been mentioned in this article and is in a similar situation to Muddle the Mixture in that it looks like a well rounded flexible card but in reality is outperformed by more streamlined alternatives. Certainly playable but rarely outstanding.

Mindbreak Trap does a few things exceptionally, both shutting off certain kinds of combo deck engine and dealing with uncounterable spells such as Obliterate. Encountering these effects in cube is rare and as a four mana Dissipate the Mindbreak Trap is far too costly making it a sideboard card which to my mind is not a good use of cube slots.
Disrupt is a deadly little spell that should it hit anything will put you far ahead in the game. Despite being as soft as they come as well as rather narrow you can fairly easily cycle Disrupt away a little like Arcane Denial thus making it somewhat less of a dead card late game as Daze and Force Spike are. Sadly you rarely want to play Disrupt in your deck as it is not got great odds on doing what you want when you want it to.

Both Izzet and Dimir Charms are useful little counterspells that help to bolster your anti spell capabilities. Good utility cards but playing them mainly for their countering potential is unadvisable. There are just more efficient or effective alternatives that don't come with the other fluff if counterspells are what you need.

Voidslime and Absorb are better in cube than other formats due to the low number of hard counters available. While a three mana counter is pretty weak it is still playable. When you tack on added value or added utility you wind up with a quite acceptable cube card. If not for their being gold making them narrower cards they would be played enough to make this top 16 list.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Top 10 Simic Cards

Simic is a fun guild but tends to have ruther clumsy cards that are hard to place in many archetypes. Overall it is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, of all the guilds containing blue. Simic is probably also superior to Boros and Rakdos in terms of depth and average playable card quality. Here is my top ten Simic cards for cube play:


Plasm Capture
It was a tough call between Plasm Capture and Simic Charm to gain the last spot. Simic Charm seems really good however I am yet to build a deck where I think "I need the things Simic Charm offers". Hexproof is nice but it doesn't protect you from wrath effects which is what Golgari and Boros do so well and find so many slots confirmed as a result. As such Simic Charm does a few unexciting tricky things at a cost that makes the trick not that easy to pull off and consequently it sees basically no play. Compared to Mana Drain the Capture is god awful but then that is no surprise, I deem the Drain to be too overpowered for fun cube play, one of a very select few cards outside the original base set cards that manages to get there (along with Strip Mine and Tolarian Academy). As for the others, a doubling of mana cost would still leave you with absurd cards, UU - Draw 3. 2UU - Have another turn. Sadly doing this to Mana Drain makes it rather unwieldy and obvious. The boost you get from countering a two or three drop and jumping to five or six on your next turn is a much greater swing than countering a four drop and then having 8+ mana for the main reason that you don't have that much useful to spend that kind of mana on very often and if you do it is not as significant as an earlier mana boost. A cost of UUGG is also onerous on a mana base and makes Cryptic Command look really easy to cast by comparison. When someone leaves up 4 mana you should be wary, especially when they have a couple or more cards in hand and so it is very easy to play around. A four mana counterspell is not a very good control card as it is so hard to do anything else on the turn you play it, often the mana you gain is just recovering the tempo loss from having a four mana counter! Having any colour you want from the mana yield is one area it outdoes Mana Drain but it is so insignificant next to being gold and costing twice the total mana. Best in blue green ramp decks and storm decks but far from a cube mainstay, at least it does see play from time to time, if not for nostalgia and fun that it being the best card to play.


Temporal Spring
Temporal Spring is a decent little tempo card. As a three mana sorcery speed removal spell that doesn't permanently kill something it is often overlooked however this is not really the role you should play this card in. Bounce should be cheap and instant so as to get good value from it, hard removal that has a broad range you are happier to pay 3 for and do as a sorcery. Temporal Spring is neither of these things although it does have the broadest range of possible targets. The way in which you should play Temporal Spring is the same as when you want to play Memory Lapse over Counterspell. It falls into the kind of deck that wants to play a low economy game, be that of mana or of cards. One of the most brutal things you can do is to lay an early Spring on a comes into play tapped land. Not only does this really slow down your opponent but it costs them a draw which very punishing early against tempo based decks. Unlike most bounce spells you do not lose any card advantage with Spring. I like to play it in decks with some or any of the following cards; Boomerang, Wastelands, Rishadan Port, Memory Lapse, Remand, Chittering Rats, Misinformation, Plow Under, Sinkhole, Tangle Wire and any other card that would fit in in this list. One drop mana creatures are also nice as a turn two Spring is a whole lot more exciting. I would describe Temporal Spring as a tempo based disruption effect primarily used to slow your opponent down. Do not play it with any expectation of trickery or as removal. You can of course get lucky and fateseal it away from the top of the library however this isn't something you should bother to build into your deck. At its best you want them to draw the card you put back on top, in this way you not only deny them something in play but you also make their next draw sub optimal. A classic case of this is putting a mana elf back on top when recasting it the following turn will hurt tempo more than help it and it will do basically nothing later in the game either. Although not quite it feels about as close to "Destroy a land and your opponent discards a card" as we are likely to see for three mana in these golden situations.


Voidslime gets a job done. Three mana for a hard counter is bearable in the cube where there are precious few hard counters at all, let alone for less than three. Being gold and having no colourless component in the cost is awkward but then Dromar's Charm and Absorb see a lot of cube play and suffer the same or worse. If Dromar's Charm is utility and Absorb is value then Voidslime represents security. Voidslime has gotten better over time with more planeswalkers and their frightening ultimates offering great things to Stifle. You will often catch people out with it as well as they do not expect you to disrupt them with a Stifle effect even if they are expecting countermagic. It is a joy to counter a Wastelands, the feeling of righteous retribution alone is almost worth playing the card. Often you will use it to counter an equip effect and feel really jipped by not getting great value out of the card however when you are a control mage you have to do what you have to do and just having those extra options goes a really long way. If this were any other colour pairing but blue green I suspect it would be the most played of all the 3 mana hard counters in the cube but Simic is an uncommon counter based control option as it is so useless at dealing with creatures.


Mystic Snake
Mystic Snake is a lot worse of a Counterspell than Plasm Capture as a mana injection tends to be more use than a 2/2. The G / 1 casting cost difference does mean you have to be careful about other colours or colourless land but overall they are both a bit of a pain to cast. The reason that Mystic Snake is so much more played than Plasm Capture is that it is a creature card and thus has loads of synergy with other cards that no other counterspell has. You can create very easy soft locks with cards like Waterfront Bouncer and Crystal Shard in combination with Snake. You can tutor is up with Survival of the Fittest, you can Aether Vial it out for free and without risk of being countered and so on. As we know, four is a lot to keep up and is really rather obvious so you find a lot of the time that you will just counter the first thing that you can with it. Although a 2/2 is nothing to get excited about it does mean you get a 2 for 1 as well as an injection of tempo. Typically the decks that play Snake are more tempo focused and have lots of creature synergy using cards like Opposition all of which improve the value of a 2/2 body. The fact that Duress, Negate, Spell Pierce etc all miss it is also very satisfying!


Simic Sky Swallower
Simic Sky Swallower remains one of those best in slot cards despite actually being fairly underpowered compared to what seven mana affords these days. On paper you would think Sphinx of Jwar Isle was largely more playable being only one colour and costing 6 for a 5/5 rather than 7 for a 6/6. Trample is certainly better than looking at the top of your library most of the time but is much more important for a 6/6 than a 5/5 and with flying already it is no significant loss. They even have the same clock to kill from 20 life. Despite this the Swallower is used as a threat in Simic ramp decks and as a card to cheat into play with Oath, Natural Order, Reanimate and even Show and Tell. Few cards indeed manage such a feat as to be worth cheating out but also castable in the normal manner. Sky Swallower just gets it done, it is very hard to kill and just keeps sending in damage. It is just the right blend of hard to block, quick to kill with and awkward to deal with to be frequently played in a much wider range of decks than almost any other seven drop (with the exception of Karn Liberated presently). It is not an exciting or fun card like Griselbrand or Elesh Norn but then simple and to the point are usually the traits of the best and most played magic cards.


Trygon Predator
Trygon Predator is a royal pain in the arse. Most decks have targets for him to eat up and even those few that don't still don't much like 2/3 fliers. Once made there is usually a mad panic to find a way of dealing with him, if that fails you then start to lose tempo and card advantage as well as being highly restricted in what plays you can make. While you automatically assume he is killing artifacts and enchantments he is just as useful at dealing with planeswalkers. There are precious few 3 mana or less cards that have flying which are cube viable and fewer still that have all round robust bodies. As such you can fairly reliably chunk planeswalkers for two in the mid game with a Predator which stops them from being cast or at least stops them doing much useful. There have been so many games in which I am either throwing down sacrifical planeswalkers to try and stop them eating my other cards or throwing out artifacts and enchantments in the hope that they will be tempted to destroy them rather than attacking my planeswalker. I do find it a little hard to include Predator in lists because I don't know how good he is going to be if I don't know what decks/cards I will be facing. When you know you have important things to kill you play more reliable quicker removal like Nature's Claim because you cannot risk giving them that extra turn of use of just Bolting your Predator before it does anything for you. Even so, whenever I do find room for this little man I am never disappointed. It sure don't look like it can fly but then I guess physics is less relevant where magic is concerned.


Edric, Spymaster of Trest
Edric, Spymaster of Trest is less effective than Trygon Predator and should perhaps be below it in the list. A large part of this is how obviously powerful he is meaning people are more prepared for him and usually stop him doing anything much at all. Edric rather relies on you having a good position in which to use him and a lot of the time is just a win more card. If you already have a couple of attackers getting through then chances are the game is yours. If not you are paying three mana for a 2/2 and feeling sad about it. While he may be wildly inconsistent he is a very cheap way to draw a lot of cards in the right deck and is hard to pass up as a result. He will typically eat the first removal spell your opponent can cast once he hits the board which is not what you want to happen but also not a disaster. Although swarmy token decks and elf decks do work decently with him you are very vulnerable to mass removal. My preferred type of deck for Edric is a tricksy tempo deck, often with Opposition as a finisher, and which has a high concentration of cheap evasive dorks that do other things as well such as Looter il-Kor, Trygon Predator, Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, Blinkmoth Nexus, Strangleroot Geist etc. Edric is a very very powerful card that relies upon support, position, design and planning to realise that power. He is also fairly broad unlike a lot of the more interesting cards for deck design and so while he is not a must have for a cube he is a good way to make things more complex and interesting. You are also hard pressed to to find a cheaper way in which to draw a tonne of cards without costing you some other resource or giving your opponents cards too.


Coiling Oracle
Coiling Oracle is a simple cheap card that binds together deck lists really well. You always get cheap card advantage and you sometimes get some ramp out of it as well. It has some pleasant synergy with all sorts of different cards and rarely looks out of place in a deck list. You need to pair it with some library manipulation to reliably use it as a ramp card and unless you are playing a turn one Brainstorm, Ponder or at a stretch Serum Visions you are not going to be able to use it as ramp on turn two when you most want it. This works against it a little in the early game but not a lot as getting board presence, a chance or ramp or at worst another card to use are all good things. In the late game however this slight unpredictability it has in the early game becomes an advantage when compared to cards like Sakura Tribe Elder or Nature's Lore. They will only get you lands and thin your deck while Oracle will be effectively always drawing you a card. Another great thing about Coiling Oracle is that you can ramp with non-basic lands, and not just those with basic lands types but any old land you happen to hit! These will come in untapped as well which makes the Oracle a total bargain when you can put that mana to use right away. Part Explore and part Elvish Visionary it is hard to get that excited about what this card does but that doesn't stop it being very effective in its various roles. For decks that want bodies as well as ramp it is one of the best, unlike mana elves you can Clamp it off or tap it for Opposition without losing the ramp. Wall of Roots is usually better in this regard but it can't attack which reduces the total number of synergies it has and having redundancy in those kind of cards is nice too. Not a card that is in the foreground winning games but a card working hard in the background so you can get to your exciting powerful game winners.


Kiora, the Crashing Wave
Kiora is one of the best gold planeswalkers. She has 3 good abilities, she only costs 4 mana and she has a potent means to protect herself. She has some issues, starting with so few loyalty makes her vulnerable and it makes the -1 ability rarely used. This is also to do with how cheap and powerful the ultimate is, as soon as you look to get some returns from Kiora you think if I just wait a turn I can have all the 9/9s instead of drawing a couple of cards and perhaps ramping a little at a rather irrelevant stage of the game for it. As such the only time I have seen the -1 used is when you are digging for a specific card / answer or you have just made her onto a board she has no hope of surviving. Typically she is weak against decks with burn and decks with multiple small threats. Anything midrange or control without lots of burn struggles a lot more against her. Her low loyalty and cheap (yet very powerful) ultimate make her unlike other planeswalkers which is nice to play with but annoying because of her weakness to burn. Although she would become a duller card I think she would be more rounded if the minus loyalty costs were increased along with a starting loyalty increase, something like 4 to start, -2 to Explore and -8 or 9 to make fatties. Sadly we are past the development stage and so we just have to be mindful of her variable power when building with her. Like Coiling Oracle she never looks out of place in a deck and is sufficiently both powerful and versatile to go in most decks where she is on colour. With so many of the blue and green planeswalkers being Jace or Garruk there is also a lot more love for Kiora.


Shardless AgentShardless Agent is a lovely card that I rate above Bloodbraid Elf, although only just. It is a very cheap tempo and card advantage dork that has a wide range of applications. Agent offers more consistent returns on the cascade and is less restrictive on your construction than Bloodbraid. It is also cheaper so you can put it to use earlier. Another thing in its favour is that it is more generic than Bloodbraid Elf and therefore fits cleanly into a wider range of strategies. Of all the cards that stand out in cube, those creatures that offer both tempo and card advantage simultaneously are a significant proportion. Those that are on the cheaper end of the spectrum are played whenever the opportunity present and as they are viable in aggro and control strategies so that opportunity is often. Shardless Agent is one of the least played of that elite group although it is far from the worst. It is because there are not that many UG archetpyes, many of those combo, and so the Agent is not always suitable. On top of this it makes two or fewer mana counter magic unwise to play which is a fairly big part of many blue strategies. The more redundant your deck, or at least the potential cascade targets, the better Agent will be for you. It will only ever be bad for you if you have miss built your deck in regards the Agent. All in all it is a very cheap two for one that should provide that advantage in a way desirable to your deck rather than things like Trinket Mage or Stoneforge Mystic which require you to includes certain other cards to do their thing and so you build around  them rather than Agent who works with you to do what you are trying to do. Another perk of cascade cards is that they force through the 2 for 1 unlike Eternal Witness and other enter the battlefield effects when facing counter magic. Final point of note is that Agent is an artifact which increases his potential synergies while not being an issue in regards increase susceptibility to removal as you don't overly care about the body once you have cast it. Trading an in play Agent for a Disenchant or similar makes you feel even more ahead.

Lastly we have some honourable mentions for those cards that have been played but seldom or just the once.

Slippery Boggle
Lorescale Coatle
Master Biomancer
Fathom Mage
Urban Evolution
Kiora's Follower
Primespeaker Zegana
Prophet of Kruphix
Simic Charm

The Coatle is looking rather outclassed by Chasm Skulker these days and is likely already enjoying an unknown early retirement. There are plenty of powerful midrange dorks that suffer from lack of archetypes in Simic, there are also some cute smaller dorks with nice effects but that never seem to be enough to make a final 40 list. Simic is one of the guilds that has a flavour that is most removed from what that colour pairing tends to want to be doing in the cube. Those cards that do have overlap in this way tend to be outclassed by the more direct mono colour offering. If you want to ramp then the green options typically outclass the Simic ones, if you want to draw cards or counter spells then it is the mono blue cards that are top of the pick list. Powerful cards but hard to use well and so Simic cards are among the least played gold offering in cube.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Goblin Rabblemaster

Goblin Rabblemaster
So it turns out I can't read. My review for M15 rated this as C cube at best because I thought you needed to attack with it before getting a token. The seemingly minor upgrade to having it make a 1/1 each combat turns the card from a C cube dust collector to an A cube staple. A card that can attack for 6 the turn after you make it for only 3 mana is good, the extra one on the turn you make it is nice. Left alone the damage will soon be too much and even if dealt with you should have some tokens left over for bonus value and damage. He is fairly easily blocked and killed however you will usually kill whatever blocks it and have already done reasonable damage while still having two 1/1s to show for your investment. His drawback of forcing attacks is minor, it doesn't affect him nor any other non-goblins you have. Goblins typically want to attack as well so the chances of this costing you card advantage or tempo are minimal. Rabblemaster scales really well with other goblins, despite his drawback, of which there are plenty in the main cube and a beastly set of tribal cards to really abuse him in the reserves. This guy will be decent in any vaguely aggro red deck which is something red somewhat lacks. Prophetic Flamespeaker requires some building around to be that exciting, as does Chandra's Phoenix which are the only other red three drops that see regular cube play. Rabblemaster is a much higher impact card and is very powerful in a vacuum unlike the other options. A big card for red despite being unlikely to see control play, he just has so little competition in the three slot and offers so much that basically every red aggro archetype will be happy enough to play him.