Q: How do you upset a Magic player in just three words?
A: “Counter target spell.”
Yes, counterspells have always been the most polarizing aspect of Magic. For whatever reason, getting your spell snuffed out on the stack is simply more galling than getting hit by removal on the battlefield. Perhaps it’s the power dynamic created by untapped Islands, the idea that you suddenly need to wait for your opponent’s permission on every attempted play. Even if it’s just another form of interaction, the mind games of countermagic are uniquely frustrating.
But as “polarizing” implies, there are just as many diehard counterspell fans as there are haters! And since they’re never going away, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the most classic, powerful, important counters in Magic history; understand why they matter, and what makes them so good. Read on to discover our list of the Top 20 Counterspells… don’t worry, I’ll allow it.
When evaluating a counterspell, the biggest consideration is how its mana cost will line up against the cards it’s countering. No single example captures this quite like Disdainful Stroke, a card which offers the opportunity to significantly “trade up” on mana… with the drawback that it can only trade up. This deal is still good enough to make Stroke a reliable sideboard counterspell along the lines of Negate – and since it’s usually been printed in Standard sets alongside cost-reducing mechanics like delve or foretell, it’s a surprisingly playable main deck choice as well.
The effectiveness of Condescend (and its Standard-legal cousin, Syncopate) scales with how much mana your opponent has available, rewarding the control player for already being ahead on resources (or at least at parity). It will often “trade up” in the early game, when small mana advantages are most important, since most opponents will be trying to play on curve.
In the later turns, your opponent will most likely have spare mana, which makes Condescend inefficient for the caster compared to something like Cancel. But as a universal hard counter, Condescend’s occasional inefficiency is usually justified by its immense flexibility – and the “Scry 2” sweetener makes it hard to feel bad about firing one off, even when you’re tapping out for it.
Speaking of mana efficiency, 2021 and Kaldheim may have given us the best answer yet to “What would make a 1UU counterspell feel exciting?” After 15 years of Cancel, few would have expected “it sometimes costs 3U instead” to be the ideal solution. And yet, by giving control players the chance to lay-away their counterspell on turn two, Saw It Coming has proven its worth even in a Standard format quite hostile to countermagic.
There’s a home truth about tempo and mana efficiency here; it’s worth paying more mana overall if you can save mana on a key turn later on. But there are also some important fringe benefits to foretelling your Cancel. First, it reduces the blue mana requirements in situations where you don’t draw a second Island, or even those where you’re late drawing your first one. Secondly, it offers a hitherto unavailable bit of counterplay against Duress. By hiding your counter in the exile zone, you are almost assured it will be available when you need to shoot a spell down. Almost.
Another three-mana counterspell – and this one was successful in a time when actual Counterspell was still legal in Standard and Extended! But then, you weren’t playing Forbid in place of Counterspell – you were playing them alongside each other as complementary weapons in your permission game plan.
The key to Forbid is that playing it for 1UU is never the ideal scenario – the cost you want to be paying is 1UU and two cards. Buyback on an unconditional counterspell is incredibly powerful, more than enough to justify that steep card disadvantage. Essentially, you can look at Forbid as a one-card-lock, a build-around win condition which asks only that you significantly outdraw your opponent. And with card advantage scarce outside blue at the time, Forbid succeeded as a pure control finisher – and still does in Commander!
WotC’s default stance is that giving white stack interaction would create too much potential for tempo decks, given the perennial status of “White Weenie” as the best small-creature aggro archetype. But, as usual, Time Spiral block was the place to break such long-standing rules, and it offered several takes on white countermagic. Mana Tithe, as the most powerful among them, became an instant cult classic.
In large part, it’s the sheer rarity of white countermagic that makes Mana Tithe so effective and beloved. Opponents playing against white decks simply don’t expect to be punished for playing on curve the way they do against the threat of Daze or Mana Leak. Whether it’s part of a dedicated mana-denial plan with land destruction or simply for playing mind games in open-deck events, Mana Tithe adds just the right amount of stack interaction to white’s arsenal.
It’s not the most broken example of the boundary-pushing “Phyrexian mana” mechanic, but Mental Misstep has still proven too powerful and limiting for most Magic formats. The opportunity to play your own one-drop spell and then shut down your opponent’s with free counterspells is already borderline too-good with more significant drawbacks; paying a mere two life for it is beyond the pale. You can play a single copy of Mental Misstep in Vintage, or in Highlander formats (including Commander!), but otherwise, you’ll have to read about this menace in the history books.
Counterspells are much less prominent in Commander than they are across two-player formats. One-for-one answers in general are not as effective when you have multiple opponents to worry about, and the polarizing nature of permission leads players to avoid these spells in a “fun-first” format.
Nevertheless, countermagic is a necessary emergency solution for must-stop plays, and Arcane Denial has been a standout choice for that role since the earliest days of the format. It’s a perfect “nice guy” counterspell, giving both you and the targeted player some fresh cards to make up for the lost spell. The lean and lenient 1U mana cost and real-life accessibility of this much-reprinted common have ensured it will remain a staple of Magic’s most popular format.
This list needed a representative for the sub-category of counter-creatures, and while I could have chosen Mystic Snake for historic precedence or Frilled Mystic for recency, I think Spellstutter Sprite is the most interesting of the bunch. It flourished as an almost Flametongue Kavu-style two-for-one in Lorwyn-era Faerie tribal, and it has shown its strength for long stretches in UR Pauper tempo decks. Even in Legacy, it has been tournament-winning, getting multiple uses in UB Ninjas and returning to hard counterspell status in revived Faeries decks!
Like the rest of the spells on this list, the key to Spellstutter Sprite’s effectiveness is mana efficiency. Even when it isn’t guaranteed to counter every spell, just countering some spells for 1U is very good. When you’re also gaining a flying body in the bargain – one that can carry Equipment or help trigger ninjutsu – it’s great. And of course, any deck with access to Ephemerate or similar effects can threaten efficient countermagic even after the Sprite hits the board. This uniquely powerful approach to counterspells is never going out of style.
Sometime between 2001 and 2003, Wizards decided that two-mana Counterspell was too oppressive for Standard play. But at the same time, everybody knew that Counterspell at three mana was a little too weak. Designers have been searching for the middle ground ever since – and Logic Knot still ranks as possibly the best of the bunch.
The genius of its design is that its power decreases the more copies you play (or as you lean into other graveyard synergies). Before Counterspell became legal in Modern, UW Control would typically play a single Logic Knot; since you aren’t using your graveyard for much else, it’s almost always just Counterspell for UU. But if you play two or more, you increase the odds that you’ll draw them too close together – making the second one something like a bad Condescend. But even a bad Condescend is still a begrudgingly playable card, and the upside of Logic Knot has kept it around whenever additional copies of Counterspell are called for.
If mana efficiency is the ultimate measure of a counterspell, then it should not surprise that any free counterspell, regardless of drawback, is a very special card indeed. Pact of Negation is the first to show up on our list, but it is far from the last – and the fact that the lowest-ranked free counter is just outside the top 10 only drives my point home further.
Pact falls slightly behind its other zero-mana brethren due to its steep drawback: if you fail to pay the hefty five-mana rider on your next upkeep, you immediately lose! That’s a lot of mana to commit at any point in the game, and since the effect is open information, your opponent can do a surprising number of things to prevent you from paying the mana.
As such, most players cast Pact of Negation when they’re convinced they’re going to win. Combo decks treat the card as free protection on the turn they “go for it”; the only tradeoff is drawing cards which are more or less unplayable before that point. There is also a niche tradition of decks leaning into Pact’s weirdness, either by nullifying its lose-the-game trigger, or better yet, foisting it onto their unsuspecting opponents! These unique interactions lend the card a lot of charm and make up for its most unfair combo-shielding scenarios.
Remand is another early success story from the “balanced two-mana counter” school of design. But where Logic Knot is mostly indistinguishable from Counterspell in play, Remand boldly includes a significant drawback: what if your counterspell only delayed their play instead of defeating it permanently?
As it turns out, that’s still more than good enough when you approach it with the right mindset. Being able to pay for Remand with mana from a Signet helped a lot, as did the cantrip clause, ensuring your expenditure of a card was also temporary. Our recent deep-dive on Heartbeat Combo, which was a huge Standard threat in the time of Remand, showed how potent this card could be in combo or tempo shells. Much like Pact of Negation, being able to win the same turn you played Remand mitigate much of its intended downside.
And even if you aim to extend the game far beyond the next turn, you’re almost always trading up on mana while remaining even on cards (and, in fact, seeing deeper into your library). Remand is therefore a winner for any deck that can leverage a temporary mana edge for bigger gains. It’s taken several zero-mana counters to push it to the periphery, and even then, it remains a potent pick in many cubes.
I know 2008 isn’t exactly recent history, but it’s still shocking that Negate has only been with us for slightly more than a decade. The card feels just as omnipresent, just as elemental to the game, as Counterspell itself – a testament both to its rock-solid design and non-stop annual reprinting.
Like Disdainful Stroke or (honorable mention to this list) Essence Scatter, Negate earns its two-mana price tag by limiting the range of spells it can answer. But as a card most at home in the sideboard, Negate’s mana efficiency is perfect for combo or control match-ups – when you need additional stack interaction, and when noncreature spells are exactly what you want to answer.
There isn’t really room for tweaks on this design, so there’s nothing for WotC to do but commission new artwork for Negate and send it back out for an encore every year or so. But I don’t hear anyone complaining – it’s simply one of the more perfect Magic cards in existence.
Red Elemental Blast (and functional reprint Pyroblast) are vital pieces of Magic’s heritage, and they’ve shown surprising endurance in blue-heavy eternal metagames. While they read like niche color hate, the absurd efficiency of a “one-mana counterspell/one-mana removal” split card elevates this to an S+ sideboard card for red decks, and a mirror-beater for any blue deck capable of fetching Volcanic Island… which is all of them. There’s still a certain satisfaction to beating cocky blue mages at their own game – as the flavor text of another counter-counter captures most enthusiastically.
One of the youngest but mightiest counterspells out there, Force of Negation steps things up a notch from Pact. It provides a true zero-mana option for countering noncreature spells, only costs a single mana more than Negate itself when hardcast, and even exiles the target to boot. (If it annoys you that Pact of Negation can target creature spells when Negate and Force cannot, I sympathize – Pact unfortunately predates Negate, which messes up this neat bit of Magic taxonomy.)
Force of Negation is effectively a compromise with players who begged for free counterspells to hamper the ultra-aggressive combo decks in Modern. While free counterspells normally favor explosive, all-in strategies, the designers made a prescient decision that Force could only be cast for zero mana during an opponent’s turn. Other than the occasional combo deck capable of winning at instant speed, this cemented the card as a Force for “fair Magic” in Modern, and it has proven responsible for the resurgence of control and midrange in the format.
One of the very first cards printed into the game as a Commander precon deck exclusive, Flusterstorm immediately carved out a home in Legacy and other eternal formats. And why would anyone be surprised? Sure, it’s not a hard counter like Dispel or Muddle the Mixture, and it can’t counter noncreature permanents like Negate. But what Flusterstorm does shore up a glaring vulnerability of permission decks: Tendrils of Agony.
Storm decks are tough to beat with countermagic alone – as are most non-linear combo decks of that ilk. While many combo decks often need a single key spell to win, others win through an accumulation of smaller effects, none of which is truly worth countering on its own. Then, when the finishing blow finally comes, it splits into 11 or more individual copies on the stack – making it impossible to counter them all.
Flusterstorm provided the answer blue players were craving, placing a small but sufficient tax on Tendrils, Brain Freeze, and Empty the Warrens. And even outside of that specific scenario, the intricacies of the storm mechanic have made Flusterstorm an intriguing and skill-testing part of any counterspell mirror.
The hardest part of making this list was deciding where to place actual-factual-Counterspell among its peers and imitators. The second-hardest part was picking which of its countless printings to honor in the image. Many blue players would no doubt go for one with some iconic smug flavor text (“It was probably a lousy spell in the first place”). And yet, I feel like the awe-inspiring artwork and rarity upgrade we got from Modern Horizons 2 best captures its status as one of Magic’s most foundational and influential cards.
Like its old Alpha companion Lightning Bolt, Counterspell has stood the test of time as an efficient, flexible piece of interaction. And like Lightning Bolt, the once omnipresent Counterspell was eventually phased out of Standard play to allow creature decks more room to breathe. For a while, there seemed to be no real home for this legendary card, squeezed out by free countermagic in Legacy and illegal elsewhere. But Commander players helped keep the flame alive, and this year saw Counterspell triumphantly reemerge as a cornerstone of Modern control decks – reuniting it with Lightning Bolt once again on the “format staples” list.
Daze might just be the most annoying, most polarizing of all counterspells – the ultimate “gotcha” card that all Legacy players know and fear. It’s onerous to have to consider playing a mana behind curve whenever the opponent has an Island and unknown cards in hand, and excruciating whenever you forget holding back that mana!
But Daze can be devastating on far more than just a psychological level. Having the chance to both play a one-drop and beat your opponent’s response leaves you in the ideal position to gain advantage and dominate the entire game. In the hyper-efficient land of Legacy tempo, decks strive to land a threat and then trade away both players’ remaining cards as quickly as possible. Between Daze and Wasteland, that’s never been much of a challenge. Regardless of whether it’s Deathrite Shaman, Delver of Secrets or Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, Daze makes one-mana threats into format destroyers. If we ever do see Ragavan banned in Legacy, this will absolutely be the card to blame for it.
In an era where Counterspell was sliding back into the dusty annals of history, control players needed a new banner to rally around, a new signature effect on which to stake their identity as blue mages – and Lorwyn absolutely gave them that. The heavy blue mana cost, the incredibly flexible modal options, the appropriately inscrutable Wayne England artwork – it was perfect, and an overnight success in Standard, Extended, and eventually Modern.
Modern proved to be the perfect forever-home for Cryptic Command, and it’s only natural that the card would become the darling of blue players throughout the community. Despite Magic’s gradual drift away from hand-based decks and grindy duels for card advantage, it’s hard to deny Cryptic Command is the perfect top-end for such a playstyle – a swiss army knife with options that cut through any possible game state, so long as you choose the right ones.
While there have been many attempts to make a slightly worse Counterspell, there’s only one card that can be described as a strictly-better one. And oh boy, is Mana Drain better. It’s so much better, in fact, that it’s only legal in Vintage and other niche eternal formats. Sure, you can technically play it in Commander, but you’ll need an incredibly understanding (or competitive) playgroup!
Everything I’ve said so far about Daze and Mental Misstep applies doubly to Mana Drain. There’s just no coming back from it most of the time! You go to play a two-drop; perhaps it’s even your first spell of the game. Your opponent Drains it, untaps, jams Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and then Wastelands you for good measure. You go to game two, and you take a tempo hit to make sure you have a Pyroblast ready to cover the dreaded Drain – but they just return a tapped Island to hand and Daze that one. Ah well, GG, we’ll get ’em next time?
As everyone quickly realized, turn two is simply too early in the game for such a life-and-death play, so Mana Drain was largely sidelined from the future of Magic. That’s pretty much why it isn’t #1 on this list, power level notwithstanding – what good is power if no one is allowed to use it?
One of the most unique, format-defining, standout cards in every regard, Force of Will was an easy lock for the top spot of this list. Very few cards have done so much to shape the play patterns of Magic, and as time goes on, Force’s legality has become the key distinction between the Modern and Legacy formats. With its eye-catching fiery artwork and obvious potency, Force of Will needs little explanation, even for newer players. But the influence of Force goes far beyond “best counterspell”, and has lent it the status of an irreplaceable game piece.
As always, the most important aspect of this card is how it trades with an opponent’s spell on the axes of cards and mana. The explosive tempo of Legacy and Vintage, unique among Constructed formats, comes from their avenues of transmuting cards into mana – Black Lotus, the Moxen, Channel, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Grim Monolith, Cloudpost… the list goes on. Uncapping the mana available to players at the start of the game makes it more reasonable to allow potent attacks on mana, like Wasteland, Daze and Armageddon, adding a whole new strategic element to the game. But it also enhances the ability of all-in combo decks to power out a winning line as early as turn one, posing an obvious threat to any other style of deck.
Force of Will allows players to perform a different kind of cards-to-mana alchemy: trading an extra blue card for the cost of the opposing spell. The fact that the second card is so loosely restricted, and Force is so universal (and technically hard-castable) makes it playable in any fair blue deck, and so gives a large portion of the format the necessary panic button to discourage super-aggressive combo. The expectation of countermagic even from a tapped-out opponent adds a satisfying level of bluff and counter-bluff to Legacy, which isn’t present in formats without Daze and Force.
But Force’s most important contribution comes from its inefficiencies as much as its strengths. As good as it is for beating high-tempo plays, it can be made to look bad by slower decks with a slew of individually impactful cards, like Death and Taxes. It can be even weaker against decks whose primary axis of advantage is explosive card draw, such as Enchantress or Ninjas. While those decks are often themselves quite defenseless against fast combo, the presence of Force of Will creates a sustainable “rock-paper-scissors” metagame, which has kept the Legacy format surprisingly healthy despite the thousands of cards added to it in the last 25 years.
“OKAY, I’LL LET THIS RESOLVE”
Thus we conclude our journey across three decades of “No” in Magic: The Gathering! Even as a player who loves to pick on blue and rail against the unfair exclusivity of their stack control, it’s easy to appreciate the nuances in different eras of countermagic. In fact, the pure exchange of resources inherent to this sort of card leads to a certain clarity in design, through which we can trace the evolution of Magic as a whole.
And while, in theory, the more limited design space of stack interaction makes it challenging to balance counterspells against each other, in practice, I feel that almost every entry here is a viable inclusion for Commander or other formats where they’re legal – not to mention a host of other counterspells that didn’t make the Top 20. Whether you’re a longtime counter-lover, or trying to overcome a lifelong loathing for permission, everybody should try their hand at playing counterspell decks at least once. They are without a doubt one of the most vital, timeless pillars of the Magic experience.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.