Cavern of Souls and the “Counterspell Problem” in Standard.
Cavern of Souls, in the matter of less than 24 hours, has created an enormous amount of discussion and outcry. Some believe that people are over-reacting, and indeed, they probably are in a format like Legacy, where Wasteland is there to punish greedy manabases. But the outcry over the card has more to do with how R&D’s recent decisions over the past few years have led to a place where countermagic, despite their best intentions, has become the best method of interacting with opposing cards, despite their public desire to see it diminished in effectiveness. And thus, with the prospect of a card that completely blanks any card with “Counter Target Spell” on it is legitimately terrifying to people.
But what exactly has led to this point? The issue here really starts not with Counterspells, but with R&D’s stated goal of “Making Creatures Good”. At the beginning of the game’s history, Creatures were, indeed, underpowered relative to other classes of cards. Over time, R&D has slowly been ramping up the power level of creature cards to get them on a level equal to the other card types.
In addition, R&D discovered that counterspells were frustrating to a large portion of the player base, as it felt “better” to them to have a creature taken out by Wrath of God or Doom Blade instead of a dastardly Counterspell. This led R&D to attempt to gradually scale back the power level of countermagic. They’ve printed less of them and made them less efficient, so that decks consisting of 20+ counterspells are no longer really viable in format. However, there have usually been a few decent ones kicking around each format, so that the threat of a counterspell is always there.
However, in recent years, the push to make creatures better has begun to work at cross purposes with R&D’s other goal of reducing the prevalence of weakening counterspells. Two methods in particular have increased the marginal value of countermagic relative to other forms of removal, and in the process, forced decks to lean on the few counterspells they have even harder in order to interact with their opponent’s cards.
The first trend that has led to this has been a steady increase in in the power level and tonnage of “187″ creatures with “Enters the Battlefield” abilities. First introduced in Visions, and quickly adopted and expanded upon in future Magic expansions, these “Virtual Vanillas” have spell-like effects when entering the battlefield. Cards like Cloudgoat Ranger, Sea Gate Oracle, or Acidic Slime all leave their controller up a “Card”, even if the creature is subsequently removed with a spell like Lightning Bolt or Doom Blade after it enters the battlefield. Because of this, the relative value of Countermagic compared to other types of traditional damage or destruction-based removal has actually increased because of the added marginal benefit of keeping the creature’s “spell effect” off the battlefield as well. The cycle of Titans is the best possible example of this. If you take out any of the cycle (Except Frost Titan) out after they enter the battlefield, your opponent is still “up” 1-2 cards, and if they’ve attacked? 2-4! Because of this, players in Standard have had to rely on countermagic as the primary means of fighting this attrition war.
But card advantage isn’t the only reason that players have reacted so strongly here. The introduction of mass amounts of Hexproof creatures into the Standard environment over the past four sets has created a situation where again, players have been conditioned to use countermagic over other forms of removal if they want to interact with these creatures. With Hexproof creatures, they are unable to be targetted by an opponent once they enter the battlefield, blanking cards like Doom Blade. But unlike the Shroud creatures like Blastoderm, that previously graced the battlefields of Magic, who were able to be chump blocked for days, the Hexproof ability allows the creature’s controller to attach Auras and Equipment that provide evasive abilities to their Hexproof creatures, making it nearly impossible to interact with the creature once it resolves without an instant speed disenchant effect and a handy blocker. This natural resistance to both blocking and spot removal again creates a stuation where counterspells become the simplest answer to a creature with Hexproof, as the chances of interacting with the creature while it is in play are then restricted mostly to sweepers, which are relatively narrow, often inefficient, and have a great deal of issues in the current standard environment due to mechanics like Undying.
And thus, is it any wonder that a large number of players are immediately concerned by Cavern of Souls? The move towards strong 187 and Hexproof creatures has created a situation where the value of the ability to interact with a creature before it hits the battlefield far outweighs the value of attempting to interact with it once it resolves. Despite weakening counterspells overall, R&D has steadily increased their marginal value relative to other forms of removal and interaction over the past year. And now, with many players seeing them as the*only* defense they have against the hexproof and ETB creatures in the format, suddenly a card appears that threatens to shut that entire line of play down without a single non-land card slot being used up in the process.
Is it any wonder that panic has erupted? R&D has, despite their best efforts, steadily increased the marginal value of countermagic even as they’ve reduced the power and number of individual counterspells. Now, with players perceiving that the best class of interactive spells is about to be rendered obsolete, they fear that Standard may become a format where you are simply playing “at” your opponent, trying to race or out-trump them , rather than a format where you can expect to interact or interfere with their gameplan in any reasonable manner. And given what we’ve seen of Standard lately, with control decks on life support, I do not believe that fear to be unwarranted or irrational.