Counterspell – Alpha
Date Reviewed: October 13, 2022
Commander [EDH]: 3.50
Ratings are based on a 1 to 5 scale. 1 is bad. 3 is average. 5 is great.
When I sat down to write this review, I was afraid there wouldn’t be much to say. After all, it’s hard to get more straightforward and more elegant than Counterspell. It only has three words of rules text. It has a mana cost that’s become iconic, and it’s been around since Alpha (although it hasn’t been legal in Standard, or even the late iterations of Extended, for a long time). Everyone knows what it does.
Except . . . there was also a whole set of sometimes complex, often tangled, ideas that grew up around it. The fact that it’s been around since Alpha meant that its mana cost was the first we ever saw on something that that countered spells, a baseline which remained well into the 21st century. There were plenty of other spells with similar effects, but some were compared unfavorably to Counterspell and some ended up seeing play alongside it because you could make a “wall” (cf. Buehler Blue). And this, in turn, meant that there was a lot of discussion about whether two blue mana to counter anything should be the baseline.
I’m not going to reintroduce those discussions here – they faded away as it became increasingly unlikely that Counterspell was going to be reintroduced into Standard, and all they ever did was introduce more acrimony into forums and the like. But I will point out that the card feels different in different contexts. Against slower decks it can be dominating, especially late in the game when its caster has much more than two mana to spare. Sligh and similar decks were designed to get under and past it, before it could be used effectively (and, perhaps, use cards people would feel bad about Counterspelling – it’s hard to fight the instinctive reaction that throwing one at a Mogg Flunkies is a waste). In eternal casual formats it’s both a powerful answer and a threat, in that it changes the psychogical elements and strategy assessments that people make, but it doesn’t get the same proportionate amount of play in eternal tournament formats, which are often even faster than either it or Sligh. In Commander and other singleton formats, it obviously can’t hold any strategies together by itself; you’ll be making either the Buehler Blue-style wall with one of a bunch of similar cards, or a smaller group that defends key spells plus a way to ensure card flow.
Counterspell is legal in Modern again, but current Modern is bigger than Vintage was ten years ago and rivalling certain past Legacy formats in speed. It remains to be seen whether it will make a major lasting impact there, but it’s probably good that it’s once again legal in a widely-played tournament format. As a piece of Magic’s history, it’s fitting that there’s at least one such format where it is considered significant. And although Standard Procedure hints at Lightning Bolt being reprinted, the figure on the card is Spike and her Counterspell t-shirt – you really never know!
Commander [EDH]: 3.5
The first, and only time, Counterspell was reviewed on Pojo was nearly twenty years ago. So I figured it was a good time for one heck of a throwback! Because, despite its age (as old as the game itself), Counterspell has held up quite well over the years as the gold standard of countermagic.
Two blue mana, say “no” to anything. It’s simple, and while it telegraphs itself, it still represents a clear and present danger to any deck that’s playing against it. Over the years, Counterspell has seen a plethora of weaker iterations (unconditional three-mana counters, conditional two-mana counters, two-mana counters with downsides), but it itself remains among the most powerful of the lot. The only two counterspells more powerful than the original are, arguably, Mana Drain and Force of Will, though the former was more situational back with mana burn and the latter costs different resources.
After being initially excluded from Modern, Counterspell has made it to the format there, and while it’s certainly strong, the format has shown that it’s a manageable addition. It’s probably a bit too format-bending to properly return to Standard (much like how Lightning Bolt was ultimately), but Counterspell’s iconic status is pretty much given at this point. Amusingly, it doesn’t see any real play in Legacy, but with generally better options to say “no”, telegraphing this spell doesn’t pack the same pop it used to.
Constructed: 4.75 (it’s not the best counterspell, but there’s a reason every competing spell has been compared to it over the past three decades)
Limited: 4 (usually been common, which makes this far more effective in a pinch)
Commander [EDH]: 3.5
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