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I'm currently honing a white-green tokens deck for Standard tournament play. I feel like I have a good handle on my game-plan for most of the other common archetypes, but I'm really stymied playing against the counterspell-heavy blue decks.

It's not hard for a blue deck to run 4x Mana Leak, 4x Dissipate, 4x Vapor Snag, and 4x Snapcaster Mage, giving him plenty of options to counterspell or bounce literally every single spell that I try to cast. I've tried two basic options:

  1. Go aggro. Cast spells as quickly as you can, try to exhaust his supply of counterspells, and hope that one of your plays will eventually stick. (This usually doesn't work.)
  2. Play the waiting game. Wait for him to tap out on my end step and then sneak in a Midnight Haunting, or, more rarely, hope that he eventually taps out or runs out of cards on his turn and gives me a chance to play some creatures. (This works a little better, but is very inconsistent. It depends on Villain eventually giving me an opening, and every turn I wait is another turn where he gets a chance to draw his finishers.)

Is there another way to play against this deck?

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It's not worth an entire answer, but the two things that come to mind are Surgical Extraction and Thrun. Another key here is recognizing the win condition of these decks - are they just countering until they get a Titan or something big out? If so, are you running some destruction/control (Beast Within, O-Ring, Rebuke, etc.) to take care of that? –  Ian Pugsley Dec 13 '11 at 15:55
    
The deck I played last night which prompted this question had Chandra's Phoenix and Delver of Secrets/Insectile Abomination as its win conditions. Not terribly impressive on their own, but effective when all of my answers get counterspelled. But Surgical Extraction looks very interesting. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 13 '11 at 16:01
    
I think option (2) is surely a terrible route to go down? The blue deck by definition is delighted for you to "play the waiting game"... sitting around doing as little as possible, sculpting the perfect hand to win with, is the blue counter deck's dream situation. –  thesunneversets Dec 14 '11 at 10:18
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3 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Tactics

Counterspells are powerful because they're a broad-brush answer to a lot of spells. Whatever spell type is central to your opponent's game plan, you can stop it on the stack. This versatility comes at a price, though: timing. If you've got a threat on the board, I can use Doom Blade to deal with it whenever is most convenient for me; with a Mana Leak, though, I have to cast my spell while yours is on the stack -- meaning I have to have the card in hand then and there, and the mana open to use my counter. Exploiting this weakness is the foundation of anti-counter tactics.

  1. Play an aggressive early game. Most 1-drop counters are very situational, meaning they likely won't see widespread play in a control deck. So, right off the bat, you have 1-2 turns to establish an early board presence. Rush out permanents that will help you build board position or pressure your opponent's life total.

  2. Exploit your opponent's limited mana in the mid-game. In the mid-game, your opponent will have enough land for counterspell mana, but you can still exploit the limitations of her mana base. Playing 1-drops and 2-drops straight into counters can put you at a mana advantage over your opponent. If you're both at 4 lands and she Dissipates a 1-drop, you still have 3 mana to pay for other spells. It helps if you have a key card that your opponent can't easily answer once it's on the battlefield: just holding enough mana open to cast your big threat creates pressure on your opponent to let your other stuff through.

    Another trick is to save your instant-speed plays for your opponent's end step. This puts your opponent in a double bind: if she counters your current play, then she'll be tapped out on your turn, and you'll get to play a thing; if she doesn't, hey, you just got to play a thing!

  3. Plan for the end-game. Your opponent has to play threats of her own to win. They're likely at the top of her curve (for a pure control deck) or at the bottom (for an aggro-control deck).

    • Against control or combo-control: Your opponent is using counterspells to slow down your development while she plays out lands to pay for her big stuff. Eventually she'll drop some big finisher or set up an engine that gives her ever-increasing advantage. Having an answer for it will help you avoid defeat (or at least force your opponent to wait a few more turns to play it, so she can have counter backup), but fundamentally you'll still want to win on speed.

    • Against aggro-control: Your opponent is trying to win on tempo. This involves setting up an early clock and then using counters and bounce spells to keep it going. Her undercosted threats become less and less powerful as the game wears on, though. Unless you can straight-up out-race her, you need to focus your efforts on stopping her clock. If you can do this, you can often grind out a win once her deck runs out of steam.

Strategy

  1. Include counter-proof lines of attack. Even though they're highly versatile, counterspells still can't counter everything. So, just play offensive cards that are impervious to counters. Thrun, the Last Troll is a popular sideboard card for this reason, being immune to counterspells and most removal (as a regenerating 4/4 for 4, he's also awesome enough to maindeck). Cards like Inkmoth Nexus and Moorland Haunt allow you to play offense with your land drops even if all your spell cards are getting zapped with counters. This is probably the easiest way to deal with permission-heavy decks without spreading your deck too thin (though watch your color density with Inkmoth Nexus).

  2. Sideboard specific hosers. When all else fails, if you're having lots of trouble with any particular matchup, it's sensible to devote significant space to it in your sideboard. In Scars block / M12 / Innistrad Standard, these might be cards like Autumn's Veil (see Ghoppe's answer) and Surgical Extraction (target the first counter in the yard to take out all the others in the deck; also gets you a preview of the other stuff in their hand so you know what they've got).

  3. Don't play midrange (without disruption). "Midrange" is a term for archetypes that try to straddle the line between aggro and control. They try to beat aggro decks by being "a little bigger" and control decks by being "a little faster". The problem is that "a little faster" doesn't work all that well. Oftentimes you do beat aggro (by going "a little bigger"), but counterspells clobber your deck because you're playing most of your stuff in the midgame (when your opponent has mana for counters) but the spells in your deck generally aren't big enough that you can win the game just by getting one of them to stick. IIRC, the most historically successful midrange-style decks use focused hand disruption (e.g. Duress) to clear an opponent's counters and removal.

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Also, I want to add some more ideas. Over tax their counter spells: Make the person run out of counter spells before you run out of resources by playing as many must counter threats as possible (i.e. play powerful spells every turn and eventually you'll run them out of counter spells). For example, have a lot of similarly costed creatures that will end the game if unchecked or play as many different threats as possible if the opponent has conditional counter spells (i.e. play both powerful creatures and planeswalkers and force the opponent to deal with the diverse threats) –  WPickett Jan 8 at 21:19
    
Another strategy is to force the control player to play/spend mana on their turn as much a possible. You do this by playing instant speed threats such as Restoration Angel on their turn and then they won't have the mana to disrupt/counter on your turn. –  WPickett Jan 8 at 21:23
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Since I've mentioned some cards in comments that @ghoppe hasn't, I'll go ahead and mention them here:

  • Thrun, the Last Troll gives you that uncounterable hexproof big creature you'll need to punish a control deck
  • Grand Abolisher ruins their day pretty badly (and can be very useful against some non-blue control decks as well)
  • Surgical Extraction is pretty efficient at getting rid of those pesky counterspells, and lets you see their hand (but beware it being countered once they know you're playing it)

I'd also advise some destruction for taking care of their bombs - a Beast Within or Rebuke can really turn the tide if they've invested in just the one creature (via bouncing and countering). Maybe even something like Plummet if you're concerned about flyers specifically, but general removal is going to be more useful.

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I'm a little surprised your "aggro" strategy isn't working for you. I thought that's the way a WG token deck was supposed to play… overwhelm the opponent with cheap and efficient spells.

I have a couple thoughts:

  • You do have 4x Autumn's Veil in the sideboard, right? That's a key spell to play against denial necks that can help force through a key creature. Remember that it's an instant — so you can save it to respond to a counterspell or bounce. It's your green counterspell for one mana.

  • You might want to add some hexproof creatures, or equipment and enchantments hexproof to mitigate the bounce issue.

  • Consider Creeping Renaissance. Denial decks are playing the long game. Hopefully as the game grinds on and your graveyard fills with countered spells you'll be able to play a Creeping Renaissance when you have plenty of mana and regain card advantage. If it is countered, flashback it.

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I don't have Autumn's Veil. I think I'll need to address this oversight shortly. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 13 '11 at 16:17
    
Also looking at this list of hexproof stuff, I'm seeing the Swiftfoot Boots as potentially playable. Its equip cost is 1, and the cheapness is more relevant than the pump effects of Mask of Avacyn for my deck. (My tokens deck is thick with ways to pump creatures, and it doesn't need one that costs 3 to pump one creature at sorcery speed.) –  JSBձոգչ Dec 13 '11 at 16:30
    
On the subject of flashback, Dissipate exiles the spell if it is successfully countered. Autumn's Veil is an excellent addition which I forgot entirely. On the subject of hexproof, @JSBᾶngs, I can't stress Thrun enough (4/4 uncounterable hexproof = screw you, blue). –  Ian Pugsley Dec 13 '11 at 16:56
    
@Ian, I'm reluctant to go with Thrun, because it's a) expensive and b) has no synergy with the rest of the deck. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 13 '11 at 17:21
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@JSBᾶngs I certainly see the reason not to run it, but as a sideboard anti-control card, it's hard to beat. Things like Grand Abolisher or Thrun here and (or, for example, Melira against infect when it was seeing some play in standard) may not synergize well, but if means winning instead of losing, they're still worth playing. –  Ian Pugsley Dec 13 '11 at 18:32
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