The Indifference Curve

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Cavern of Souls and the “Counterspell Problem” in Standard.

with 11 comments

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.

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Written by kirblar024

April 18, 2012 at 12:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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11 Responses

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  1. That’s an interesting way of looking at things – although counterspells are now weaker, new creature abilities have effectively weakened removal spells even more. From that perspective, though, Cavern of Souls makes sense – by adding abilities that weaken countermagic, it can be brought back into line with removal.

    If Wizards didn’t want to go in this direction, how much weaker would removal and counterspells have to be before expensive creatures that didn’t immediately impact the board would be playable? Alternatively, could a removal spell be designed that works against Titans? “Erase from Existence. 1WB. Instant. Exile target creature. Counter all abilities of that creature.” Not something they could print often.

    Jonathan Woodward

    April 18, 2012 at 1:11 am

    • I think things like Sheoldred and Drogskol Reaver are the right direction- they have massive impact, but there’s a time delay in some of their abilities that gives an opponent a turn to react with high impact sorcery speed removal without getting totally crushed before their first main phase. (I’m looking at you, Consecrated Sphinx!)

      kirblar024

      April 18, 2012 at 1:19 am

  2. The issue with counterspells are simple: they are answers. Now, every color has answers, but very few colors have answers that can be both answers to threats and answers to answers. Blue is the only color that is able to deal with threats before they hit the battlefield (Black does to some degree with discard spells, but clearly sits way behind counterspells), and the color always gets more cards that allows countering to happen. Even when the creatures hit the battlefield, Blue still has plenty of ways with dealing with the creatures, more than any other color.

    Now, Hexproof is more powerful than WotC imagined (But they say they’re changing it) and 187 creatures have become more popular because they do help battle against Blue. Were Titans pushed? Yes, but I would say they are more interactive than Blue’s counterspells. The fact that the Titans, or any 187 creature for that matter, can generate card advantage should not be something that makes people mad. It’s not like Blue is missing out on the “Enters the Battlefield” bonanza: Solemn, Sea Gate Oracle, FoF Sphinx, etc.

    I do believe that the game would benefit counterspells be in other colors, as almost every other game mechanic gets shared between colors. Countering, discarding and to and extent bouncing are in one color each. It’s funny to think that Blue and Black are traditionally the best colors.

    MTGColorPie

    April 18, 2012 at 1:25 am

    • My issue is more that they’ve pushed other things to the point where interactive removal spells are just awful in general, which may not be the best place for the game to be. A lot of players like to be able to play a more long-term oriented reactive game, and I’m just not sure that’s even remotely possible in the upcoming Standard environment.

      kirblar024

      April 18, 2012 at 1:32 am

  3. While I don’t agree with everything Ian wrote here—panic is probably overrated and discard is similar to countermagic—his main point cuts to the heart of the matter nicely: making creatures better (at least via hexproof and powerful ETB effects) is increasing the need to play countermagic even as they try to underplay that aspect. While I absolutely agree that creatures needed a boost from 8+ years ago, I think most players can agree the Titans and their ilk have perhaps gone a step too far (which was inevitable, if you think about it). When the best answer to the ‘fun’ threats in the game are the exact ‘unfun’ things you were trying to downplay, you need to reconsider your angle of attack. We shouldn’t nix hexproof nor ETB effects, but we can’t keep making creatures so strong that Doom Blade (an arguably overpowered card) isn’t a sufficient answer.

    Jay Treat

    April 18, 2012 at 2:10 am

  4. The basic problem with your thesis is that R&D’s basic goal is to neuter counterspells. It doesn’t WANT players to be able to lean as heavily on them to grind out advantages over a long game. It wants to force the use of removal and wraths to deal with threats, and make it harder for control to do what it does best (and often, in Magic’s history, too well). Players, obviously, aren’t happy about this because counterspells are the best option for what they do: they blank ETB effects AND stop the creature from being in play.

    You’re right when you say players are trying to lean on them; this just shows how good they are, and it’s why Cavern of Souls was printed, to finally (partially) force people’s hands, in some way, shape, or form.

    I imagine they’ll tone down hexproof, but I think they WANT ETB effects to be more likely to go off. They WANT the control player to lose something on their trade (killspell vs. ETB creature means other player gets the ETB effect). They make the control player’s job harder, and force them to rely on less universal answers in their toolbox. (IE, Doom Blade only kills non black, while say Dissipate counters anything.)

    My $.02.

    Sean

    April 18, 2012 at 2:27 am

    • And what I’m trying to say is that although they’ve made the individual counterspells worse than they were 10 years ago, this has been counteracted by them making counterspells better relative to other forms of removal due to how they’ve changed creature design, and that backing off of some of those abilities would reduce the relative power level of counterspells without having to resort to a nuclear option.

      kirblar024

      April 18, 2012 at 2:33 am

    • This would apply if you could actually USE basic removal, but following pro Standard tournaments post DKA, (and I personally believe that Kibler demonstrated this when he almost lost a PT if not for a 2nd top decked sweeper), some creatures are bordering on unanswerable once they hit the field. It’s basically irrefutable that Sharfman wouldn’t have been able to win that GP in March with U/B control had he faced down aggro decks like Haunted Humans with Cavern of Souls. His counters were absolutely necessary in some situations against the myriad zombie decks and the more blue heavy W/U Human decks. If sub-par wrath effects become the sole means of removing key creatures then control is justifiably dead post AVR in Standard.

      Kami

      April 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm

  5. Then replace my parenthesis with “(and I personally believe that Kibler demonstrated this when he almost lost a PT if not for a 2nd top decked sweeper)”. Still relevant, =)

    Kami

    April 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm

  6. Very interesting points; I enjoyed the read. I’ve heard people compare Cavern of Souls with Mental Misstep: “Now my Geist of St. Traft is even harder to deal with!”. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of impact Cavern of Souls actually has on each of the formats.

    Tom

    May 6, 2012 at 12:31 am


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