Modern Power Rankings: Top 10 Counterspells

This time on Modern Power Rankings, I’ve teamed up with Francesco Neo Amati, our resident UWx control expert and creator of Team UWish, to come up with a list of the 10 best counterspells in Modern control (that excludes things like Stubborn Denial which may be played frequently in Death’s Shadow, but not control decks).  We developed our lists independently of one another and aggregated them using a point system based on our rankings for each card to come up with our “Top 10 Counterspells”.

Due to some ties in our list, we’ll begin with number 7…

7: Flashfreeze (2 points)

Corey: Admittedly, this one was not on my list at all.  It was high enough on Fran’s list, however, to secure a spot in our power rankings.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  This counter is extremely effective.  It says “NOPE” to many of the spells in Modern that demand an answer: Scapeshift, Past in Flames, Primeval Titan, Through the Breach, Lightning Storm, and anything in the burn deck.  Many of those examples come from ‘big mana’ decks that tend to have a spare 3 mana to pay the cost of Mana Leak and just keep on going.

Fran: Exactly what Corey said. It’s not quite Disdainful Stroke, but it’s also nowhere near as narrow as Gainsay. If your meta is heavy on Burn, Storm, Breach, and/or Shift, it’s a solid one-of to complement your other relevant counters for those match-ups.

6: Mana Leak (4 points)

Fran: I understand and respect the stigma against Mana Leak, but I’d argue it’s also underappreciated. Against graveyard hate, Logic Knot may be less reliable than Mana Leak throughout the course of the game. Mana Leak is also a less conditional counter to flashback with Snapcaster Mage. Lastly, if you’re plan is to stave off early pressure and bridge to the late game, then Mana Leak is a reasonable counter from turns two to six against spells that cost anywhere from three to five mana. There’s a reason why BennyHillz continues to play 2-3 in UW Control. I recommend the same in UWish.

Corey: There are few counterspells in Modern that just say “counter target spell” without some condition applied to it that prevents you from targeting a specific type of spell.  While Mana Leak is far from unconditional, it does have the ability to deal with anything when the moment is right.  For many decks that lack early interaction, this spell may be quite useful in dealing with a creature that is likely to otherwise begin beating you down.  On the other end of the spectrum, Leak can serve as the perfect disruptor for combo decks who try win as early as possible (ie. Goryo’s Vengeance, Ad Nauseum).  It is extremely versatile in the proper build, however, not every deck is suited for Mana LeakPath to Exile, for example, has historically been a “nombo” with Leak as it provides your opponent the additional land needed to pay 3 mana and carry on.  But when it’s good, it’s great.

5: Remand (5 points)

Corey: When your plan is to fend off threats long enough to find the right tools to win, Remand is the perfect solution.  It can counter anything…for a moment…and dig deeper into your deck.  Any other iteration of counter/draw costs four mana so at two, Remand is perfectly costed to buy time or pair with a friendly neighborhood Snapcaster Mage to be reused.

Fran: Remand was all the rave when Twin was around, but it’s had a resurgence in URx Breach and Kiki decks which share similar design and game plan philosophies. It’s the go-to counter in tempo and combo shells, typically as a two to four-of. I’ve seen it as a flexible one-of in Control decks but it’s definitely less important there.

4: Disdainful Stroke (10 points)

Corey: This one has quickly become a blue sideboard staple given its versatility in Modern.  Whereas spells like Mana Leak lose value later in the game when your opponent has extra mana to pay, Disdainful Stroke is always good against curve-toppers that demand immediate answers such as Gifts Ungiven, Thought-Knot Seer, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Past in Flames, and more.

Fran: I’m going to echo what Corey said here but will add that you can also use it to counter Karn Liberated, Ugin, Cryptic Command, Primeval Titan, Scapeshift, and several others. What was once considered a narrow counter has quickly become one of UWx’s sideboard staples vs ‘big mana’ decks. If you’re already on Mana Leak/Logic Knot in the main, then one Disdainful Stroke should suffice to complement them, but two is reasonable, too, especially if Titan Shift is an issue.

3: Ceremonious Rejection (11 points)

Fran: There’s not much to say about this one except that it’s particularly powerful against Tron. For just one mana, you can counter anything from mana rocks to All is Dust/Oblivion Stone to their creature threats and Karn/Ugin. It’s also very good against Eldrazi Tron if you’re on the play. Keep in mind, though, that If they land Chalice of the Void, it’s a dead spell until you can get Chalice off the field.

Rejection can also be played against Affinity and Lantern which makes it one of the most efficient hard counters against some of UWx’s most difficult match-ups.

Corey: While seemingly narrow at first glance, Rejection is live in so many difficult match-ups, most notably Tron.  Tron demands unconditional counterspells at low costs to combat turn three Karn or Wurmcoil Engine and Rejection provides that.  Beyond that, it has upside against early plays in this type of deck in Chromatic Sphere or similar and is cheap enough to be re-cast with Snapcaster to stop one of their payoffs.

TIED FOR 2: Logic Knot (14 points)

Fran: Logic Knot is Modern’s Counterspell, or at least the closest imitation we’re probably ever going to get. Those who aren’t fond of Mana Leak’s late game inconsistencies and friction with Path to Exile, confidently turn to Logic Knot. While it is more demanding to cast and flashback with Snapcaster Mage, its upside is undeniably more appealing beyond turn 5, especially in a shell that can fill its graveyard more consistently, such as Jeskai Control. Search for Azcanta is also an engine that fuels Logic Knot.

If you’re looking for a counter against aggressive strategies and to bridge you to the late game, Logic Knot isn’t as reliable as Mana Leak. However, if you want the strongest catch-all 2 mana counter for the late game, no other counter in Modern is better than Logic Knot.

Corey: There’s something to be said about just saying “no” to everything.  The problem with spells like Mana Leak is that it experiences such diminishing returns as the game goes long.  Currently, with Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls so abundant, there is little to catch in the moments where it is most necessary.  Logic Knot experiences the same challenge vs. tribal aggro but scales exceptionally well into the late game.  Even if Rest in Peace or Relic of Progenitus has demolished your graveyard, the opportunity remains to pour all of your mana into Logic Knot’s X and price your opponent out of their spells.

While blue mages tend to use cards like Spell Snare as insurance against counterspells like Remand, Negate, Mana Leak, Logic Knot can be cast with just two mana sources but possesses a casting cost other than two.  In an extreme corner case, its delve, which can be as large as the number of cards in your entire graveyard, presents a unique opportunity to exile all of your yard if it is detrimental to an opposing Tarmogoyf.

TIED FOR 2: Cryptic Command (14 points)

Fran: While it is the most expensive counterspell of those considered to be the best in Modern, it’s without a doubt the most versatile. In just about any Control deck, it’s often considered to be the best card in the deck. Its flexibility makes it the ultimate modal spell in the format, whether you want to counter, draw, bounce, or tap down a threat (or threats), but it comes at a price – UUU. If you can afford to play it, and your deck is designed to go late, then you want to run anywhere from two to four.

Corey: Cryptic Command presents the ultimate utility spell.  While this list includes many spells that can counter a spell as long as certain conditions are met, Cryptic won’t put up with ANYTHING.  As an upside, we’ll throw in your choice of return target nuisance to its owner’s hand, fog your opponent during a crucial combat step, or…you know…get some free stuff off the top of your deck (hopefully a Snapcaster Mage).

Bouncing a permanent allows blue mages to deal with resolved artifacts and enchantments that are often difficult to remove once they’ve hit the board.  While it is difficult to find UUU after the Blood Moon comes out, this may be your only hope if you’ve let this god-awful enchantment resolve.  Additionally, Leylines of all sorts can be a real pain in your side if they are just dropped onto the battlefield before you’re even give the chance to counter.  Its slow, but Cryptic provides you an out.

Cryptic would be higher on my list if it didn’t cost four mana.  The card is incredibly powerful but…expensive.  In a tempo/control deck such as Delver or Death’s Shadow, a four-mana price tag takes Cryptic out of the question.  In a slower control deck packing catch-up cards like Supreme Verdict, reaching four mana is much more realistic.  

TIED FOR 1: Negate/Countersquall (16 points)

 

Fran: Next to Logic Knot, I’d argue that Negate is the closest we have to Counterspell’s effect in Modern. It’s live in many matchups to the point that several UWx Control decks have been main decking at least 1, which includes Countersquall, and rightfully so. I refuse to play less than two in my 75 of any control variant.

Corey: Before the current iteration of 5C Humans appeared in Modern, I would argue that Negate effects are live in EVERY match-up.  A “non-creature” permanent presents a vast list of spells that deserve (or demand) to be countered, and including a way to catch all of them for just two mana seems like a no-brainer.  Even after Humans appeared, I’ve continued to run one main-decked Countersquall in Grixis Control as insurance against combo decks in game one.  

I’ve included Countersquall because of its obvious similarities to Negate.  If I’m playing Grixis or UB control with Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, I won’t hesitate to include at least two copies of this in my 75.

TIED FOR 1: Dispel (16 points)

Fran: Dispel may not be as versatile as Negate, but it is arguably the strongest and most efficient counter against various control and combo decks. Additionally, it allows you to safely resolve and protect your spells against counter wars and removal spells. In a format that rewards mana efficiency and consistency above all else, Dispel is one of the best examples of a spell that requires bare minimum investment for a significant payoff. It’s particularly well-positioned right now, especially with the rise of control decks, and I wouldn’t play less than two at the moment.

Corey: Dispel is perfectly costed to ensure that your spells will safely resolve when you are facing an opposing counterspell deck.  In fact, Dispel is SO affordable that you can protect your spells with a Snapcaster Mage and just three mana.  While this is typically relegated to a sideboard card, it is so potent in games two and three that merely knowing that Dispel is a possibility will cause your opponent to play with reservation.

Other benefits include the ability to stop instant speed combo pieces (ie-Goryo’s Vengeance, Through the Breach, Lightning Storm, Chord of Calling, Collected Company, Gifts Ungiven) with minimal mana commitment.  While it can be more difficult to spare four mana for a “safety” Cryptic Command, a single U symbol is often doable.  Dispel is the perfect piece of insurance.  So easy a caveman could do it.

TIED FOR 1: Spell Snare (16 points)

Fran: Spell Snare is commonly considered the best or worst counterspell since it has a specific condition for it to be relevant, but it’s a hard counter that actually hits some of Modern’s best spells. When it does, especially on the play, it has the unique ability to cripple an opponent’s tempo, such as being able to counter a Search for Azcanta or a Snapcaster Mage vs Control.

I put together the following guide to showcase the power of Spell Snare: Fran’s Spell Snare Guide.

It’s certainly not as narrow as it’s made out to be. Ultimately, it’s one of those counters you’d likely rather have access to and side out where it’s less impactful than to not have it at all. One to two is where you want to be.

Corey: Snare is surprisingly live right now.  I’ve been maindecking one in many of the blue control and tempo decks that I’ve played in the last month or so and have been quite pleased with the results.  In an extremely fast or combo-oriented metagame (which Modern often is), the ability to counter a two-drop before you’ve played your second land is vital.  I’ve argued for the value of this counterspell vs. Rest in Peace as current control decks often run Snapcaster Mage, Logic Knot, Search for Azcanta, or green/black delve creatures.  

Beyond that, many of the most aggressive decks in the format play a mana curve that is bottlenecked at two.  Burn depends on Skullcrack, Boros Charm, Searing Blaze etc.  GB Midrange decks depend on Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Grim Flayer.  While the aggressive creature decks in the format tend to run Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls, keeping Spell Snare in vs. them is far from ill-informed.  Often times, these decks can overwhelm you in early turns by playing two Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Kitesail Freebooter (etc) in one turn, and the potential to catch one of them is well worth the risk.