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.

1 comment:

  1. I would no longer have Forbid in this top 16, it is simply too slow these days. You are rarely in a position to abuse the buyback and so a nice simple perk on your three mana counter magic would be preferable as per Dissolve and its always good scry 1.

    I would replace Forbid with a card I somehow don't even mention in this list - Condescend. Scry 2 is huge and the card is otherwise pretty reliable. I would probably also like to see Censor on this list somewhere in a similar place.