Cryptic Commander: The Talrand Principle

The very first Cryptic Commander talked about Insidious Will; and, at the time, I mentioned that I was interested in doing a piece focused entirely on using counterspells in Commander. Well, the time has come. Let’s talk about Counterspells.

Force of Will
Scatter to the Winds

Counterspells can be a bit of a sore subject in Commander. There are a good number of people who think they’re boring, that they’re against the spirit of the format (a bit of a non-argument in my opinion since Commander isn’t one thing to everyone who plays it), or, the age old argument, they’re just plain not fun to play against. I could get into the merits of these individual arguments, but I feel like that wouldn’t get to the heart of the issue people seem to have with counterspells: Counterspells keep people from doing what they want to do. It’s true, that’s how they’re designed. It’s a part of the game, and I think that’s fine in moderation. Having answers available in a color that doesn’t have certain removal options (ie. artifacts, enchantments . . . basically anything that isn’t a creature) is valuable for the game . . . but there is a bit of a problem. What happens when people take things too far?

A good number of you have probably played against the deck I’m about to describe. The commander is Talrand, Sky Summoner. Your opponent resolves their general and then passes the turn with mana up for the rest of the game. You attempt to cast a spell on your turn and they counter it, making a drake. They untap, draw, attack for two air, and pass the turn with all of their mana untapped. Rinse and repeat until you can finally resolve something to help you win the game or you die to a swarm of flying drakes. Alternate scenario in which you’re playing with multiple people. The Talrand player sits back and strategically counters the things that will disrupt their game plan of building up a flying army and picking players to death. You try to bide your time and resolve something to turn the tides in your favor, only to be surprised by a Pact of Negation or Force of Will that puts them over the edge and firmly in control of the game. This won’t always happen, but even when the Talrand player doesn’t end up winning, the structure of their deck is capable of shaping the flow of the game. People tend to shy away from casting their spells if they think they’ll just be countered, and if your deck contains a lot of Counterspells, then that fear is usually pretty legitimate. So, how do we play counterspells without ruining other people’s fun?

Insidious Will
Cryptic Command

I don’t think the answer is to just never play counterspells and let people do whatever they want. A healthy amount of fear is good for keeping other players off your back long enough to put your game plan together. Similarly, the other players at the table may look to you as the Blue player to keep someone who has gotten too far ahead from dominating the table. Counterspells have their uses and it is worth including some number of them if you are playing Blue. But, normal old counterspells run the risk of being straight up boring, not to mention they can end up stuck in your hand as another player goes off on the board. So, what types of counterspells do we include. When I wrote the piece on Insidious Will, Tumblr user @sarpadianempiresvol-viii pointed out that flexibility is key. Cards like Cryptic Command, Insidious Will, Izzet Charm, and Ojutai’s Command (by no means an exhaustive list but a good enough start) are usually not dead in your hand because they do more than just counter a spell. Building a deck with counters like these allows you to take their other modes into account and use them for more than just protecting a combo or ensuring your victory. They give you options, and that is one of my favorite things to have in Commander. Yes, they do counter spells, but they are capable of doing so much more than that. Ojutai’s Command gives you the option of focusing your build on smaller value creatures while still giving you an Essence Scatter should you need to counter that pesky Craterhoof Behemoth. Izzet Charm can always be a double loot if the other modes aren’t useful. Cryptic Command kind of speaks for itself, really. You get the idea. There are Counterspells that give you options outside of countering spells.

Ojutai's Command
Izzet Charm
Soul Manipulation

Like a lot of issues in Commander, the problem with Counterspells often rests squarely on the shoulders of the players who abuse them. On average, I include about 3-5 counterspells in my Blue decks. That varies based on the focus of the deck. For instance, I think Gisa and Geralf only has 2 (Insidious Will and Soul Manipulation) while Melek, Izzet Paragon has 7 (Most of them being more conventional Counterspells, but Melek kind of needs them to function). Sometimes the counters fit the theme of the deck, like Mystic Snake and Draining Whelk in Roon of the Hidden Realm. And, it is perfectly fine to play no counterspells whatsoever. I’m not going to make you put counterspells in your Blue deck, but hopefully introducing some more interesting options will get you to rethink your stance a bit. That’s all I ask.

And there we have it. A very abridged conversation on playing Counterspells in Commander. I’m pretty pro-Counterspell in moderation, so I can appreciate that mileage may vary for the rest of you. So, where do you fall on the ongoing Counterspell debate? Are they an abomination that has no place in Commander? Are they an essential part of a healthy metagame? Are they fine in moderation? Talk about it, and let me know!

Robert Burrows

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