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Counter Action in MTG – Rules + Best Cards!

Counter is an evergreen keyword action in Magic: The Gathering. Counter prevents the effects of a spell or ability from happening. This article looks at what counter means in the MTG rules and how it works with examples, the best counter cards, building a counter deck, how to play against counterspells, and answers common counter questions!

Put Away MTG counter card illustration. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Matt Cavotta.
Put Away MTG counter card illustration. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Matt Cavotta.

MTG Counter rules

In the Magic rules, there are two different uses of the word ‘counter’.

One refers to using physical counters or markers that are placed on cards to modify their characteristics in some way. If you’re looking for info on that type of counter, see my counter markers article.

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The other type of counter refers to countering a spell or ability so that it doesn’t happen. That’s what this article covers.

Here’s what the MTG rules say about counter.

To cancel a spell or ability so it doesn’t resolve and none of its effects occur.

Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules, 701.5. “Counter”.

Counter is a keyword action that prevents the effects of a spell or ability from occurring.

The keyword action has been in the game since Alpha and has always been an evergreen mechanic. Older cards that used words like “negate” have received errata to refer to the correct type of counter.

Counterspells

Cards using the counter keyword action are called counterspells. Counterspells are divided into hard counterspells and soft counterspells.

  • Hard counterspells – Immediately negate the spell being cast.
  • Soft counterspells – Only negate a spell or ability if the opponent can’t pay the specific cost stated on the counterspell.

MTG Counter Examples

Hard counterspells

MTG cards Dark Ritual and Counterspell. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Dark Ritual and Counterspell. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For example, let’s imagine my opponent casts Dark Ritual. The spell doesn’t immediately resolve and give them their 3 black mana, though. Instead, it goes on the stack. I have a chance to respond.

I cast Counterspell, targeting Dark Ritual. Counterspell, of course, goes on the stack as well. However, my opponent doesn’t respond. As such, Counterspell resolves first. It negates the effect of Dark Ritual, which then goes to the graveyard. But my opponent doesn’t get their mana.

Soft counterspells

MTG cards Lightning Bolt and Mana Tithe. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Lightning Bolt and Mana Tithe. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

This mechanic works similarly with soft counterspells. For instance, my opponent casts Lightning Bolt targeting me, the player. It goes on the stack. In response, I cast Mana Tithe. If my spell resolves, though, Lightning Bolt isn’t countered automatically.

Instead, like all soft counterspells, my opponent can choose to pay a cost, in this case, 1 generic mana. If they don’t pay, then their spell is countered.

Counter permanent spells

MTG cards Tovolar, Dire Overlord and Cryptic Command. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Tovolar, Dire Overlord and Cryptic Command. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

I can also counter permanent spells. Suppose my opponent casts Tovolar, Dire Overlord. Now, I don’t want to lose the game to werewolves, so I cast Cryptic Command, choosing to counter Tovolar and draw a card.

When you counter a permanent spell, it goes to the graveyard. So, in this case, Cryptic Command resolves. Instead of entering the battlefield, Tovolar is sent directly to the graveyard.

Counter vs Sorcery

MTG cards Lava Axe, Lave Spike, Bump in the Night and Cancel. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Lava Axe, Lave Spike, Bump in the Night and Cancel. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Counterspells work well against sorceries. Because a player can only cast sorceries during their main phases, while the stack is empty, you can’t cast sorceries in response to counterspells.

For example, I cast Lava Axe while having two other sorceries, Lava Spike and Bump in the Night, in hand. My opponent casts Cancel, countering my Lava Axe. In response, I cannot cast my other sorceries, even though they’d both be helpful plays.

 

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Counter vs Triggered Ability

You can also counter triggered abilities, although the card must specifically say it can counter them. Triggered abilities don’t count as spells and, so, normal counterspells won’t affect them.

MTG card Ayara, First of Locthwain. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Ayara, First of Locthwain. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For instance, let’s say my opponent casts Ayara, First of Locthwain. It has a triggered ability that activates when it or another black creature enters the battlefield. Each opponent loses 1 life, and Ayara’s controller gains 1 life.

MTG cards Stifle, Strict Proctor, Repudiate. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Stifle, Strict Proctor, Repudiate. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Because I don’t want this ability to trigger, though, I can counter it with cards like Stifle, Strict Proctor, or Repudiate. Keep in mind that most cards that counter triggered abilities can counter activated abilities too.

However, when I counter Ayara’s ability, it isn’t sent to the graveyard like a countered spell would be. Instead, the triggered ability is simply negated. The permanent itself remains on the battlefield. 

Counter and Colours

The counter keyword action is primary in blue, and blue counterspells are the most versatile and practical. However, the keyword action is also tertiary in white and green, with white counterspells having soft mana tax effects while green counterspells can only counter abilities.

MTG card Abrupt Decay. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Abrupt Decay. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Certain cards such as Abrupt Decay also can’t be countered, meaning they’re immune to counterspells. Can’t be countered is a primary ability in red and green to fight against counterspells. It’s secondary in blue for additional control power.

Best MTG Counter Cards 

Chalice of the Void (Counterspells/Counters Artifact)

MTG card Chalice of the Void. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Chalice of the Void. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Chalice of the Void uses both types of Magic counters – counterspells and counter markers.

You pay any amount of mana and it enters with half that many charge counters. I can counter my opponent’s spell anytime they cast a spell with a mana value equal to the number of charge counters on Chalice of the Void.

Chalice of the Void is so good because it is an excellent silver bullet. As long as you’ve got information about your opponent’s cards, you can always turn off a huge portion of their deck. 

Counterbalance (Blue Counterspell Enchantment)

MTG card Counterbalance. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Counterbalance. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

With Counterbalance, you can counter multiple spells for only two mana. Whenever your opponent casts a spell, you reveal the top card of your library. If it has the same mana value as the spell, counter it.

This can quickly get out of hand in a deck with access to abilities like scry and surveil. Similarly, this can lock your opponent out of multiple plays in a single turn as well.

Force of Will (Blue Counterspell Instant) 

MTG card Force of Will. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Force of Will. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Easily one of the strongest counterspells ever printed, Force of Will is the reason why combo decks don’t dominate Legacy and Vintage. Countering a spell without paying mana is incredibly powerful, and countering your opponent’s combo pieces can win you the game.

Force of Will is also a great card if you’re playing control anyway. Its alternate casting cost of paying 1 life and exiling a blue card from your hand will always ensure you’ll never have to hardcast it. Even when you’re tapped out, you can still have answers.

Jace, Unraveler of Secrets (Blue Counterspell Legendary Planeswalker)

MTG card Jace, Unraveler of Secrets. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Jace, Unraveler of Secrets. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

It’s rare to find a planeswalker that can counter spells, but Jace, Unraveler of Secrets proves why that’s the case. It is powerful. Jace’s ultimate allows you a free counterspell for every opponent, every turn.

Not only that, but this Jace’s other abilities also impress. His +1 ability ensures you’ll have perfect draws, while his -2 can bounce any creature. Together, these three abilities make a well-rounded planeswalker capable of locking a player out of the game entirely.

Frontline Medic (White Counterspell Creature)

MTG card Frontline Medic. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Frontline Medic. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

You get a great deal for your three mana with Frontline Medic. Not only is it a 3/3 creature with Battalion that will give it and a couple of your other creatures indestructible when they attack, but you also get a counter option too.

If your opponent pulls a huge spell out of their hand, you can choose to sacrifice Frontline Medic to counter it unless they pay 3 mana. Make sure you check their mana stores before sacrificing it, though. You don’t want to sacrifice your creature for them to just pay the 3 mana!

Rebuff the Wicked (White Counterspell Instant)

MTG card Rebuff the Wicked. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Rebuff the Wicked. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

A hard counterspell is unusual for white, but Rebuff the Wicked delivers. For just 1 mana, you can counter anything coming from your opponent that targets one of your permanents. That’s plenty of sorceries, instants and enchantments covered!

MTG Counter Decks 

If you’re looking for counterspells, they’re most common in blue. As such, buy the appropriate theme boosters for the set, and you’ll have a better chance to get them.

You can also find some counters in green and white, but they tend to be less versatile. Whites are most often soft counterspells and greens often counter abilities only.

Despite being an evergreen mechanic, you won’t find decks based entirely on counterspells. Although Permission does exist as a deck archetype, you can’t win the game by countering spells.

Permission is used alongside other strategies, such as board wipes and hand attacks, which all cement a deck’s control over the battlefield and each player’s hand.

Thus, counterspells are a significant component in almost all control decks. Countering the opponent’s spells allows the deck to stall for time until it plays a win condition, often a large creature. 

How to Play Against Counterspells 

You can play against counterspells by timing your plays correctly.

You can bait out counterspells with certain cards, and then play the card you genuinely need to get out. Similarly, cast spells when your opponent has no mana.

Counterspells are also vulnerable to hand attacks and anything that limits the number of spells a player can cast in a single turn. 

Remember, if your opponent isn’t casting spells other than counters, they’re not building up a board presence. Attack with whatever you have on the battlefield.

MTG Counter FAQs

Can you counter a Planeswalker?

Planeswalkers are simply another card type so they can be countered the same as any other card. When you cast your planeswalker if your opponent doesn’t counter it, it enters play.

Can You Counter a Counterspell?

You can counter a counterspell. Although counterspell is a term frequently used in the Magic community, it isn’t a card type. Counterspells count as any other spell while they’re on the stack.

Do Counterspells Cancel Each Other Out?

Counterspells cancel each other out. You’ll see this happen when somebody counters a counterspell. In that case, the original spell that was going to get countered will instead resolve as normal.

Can you Counter Summoning a Creature?

Counterspells can be played against creatures. In Magic, most cards you play are considered ‘spells’. So a creature card type is also considered a ‘spell’. If a creature is successfully countered, it goes into its owner’s graveyard.

Do I get my Mana Back if my Spell is Countered?

If a spell or ability is countered, its controller doesn’t get back the mana they spent to cast or activate it. Instead, the spell or ability is negated, but the mana is still spent.

Can Deathtouch be Countered?

Deathtouch cannot be countered, as it is a static ability, not a triggered ability. Originally, deathtouch was a triggered ability and, so, could be countered. However, that has since changed.

Can Mutate be Countered?

Mutate can be countered. If you’ve cast a creature for its mutate cost, it goes on the stack as a creature spell until it resolves. While it is on the stack, you can counter it like any other creature spell.

Does Countering a Spell Destroy it?

When a spell is countered its effects don’t happen, but the spell is still considered cast. So, the spell goes into its owner’s graveyard and they still pay the mana cost for casting it.

A note: Counter MTG

Counter is one of the evergreen action keywords in Magic: The Gathering. When something is countered, the effects of the spell or ability don’t happen.

Counterspells are most common in blue, and less common (and generally less powerful) in white and green.

With a few counters in your deck, you can take some control over your opponent’s plays and turn the game in your favour! Which counters will you put in your next deck?

More Magic: The Gathering Explained

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Emily
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