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I always have a hard time to decide if I should use a counter spell in a given situation and one step earlier if I should save enough mana for a counter spell this round.

I am currently facing this problem with my variation of Solar Flare. The main idea of this deck is to stall the game for at least 5 to 6 rounds while building up your graveyard and overpower the opponent with fat creatures afterwards when the fifth or sixth land is out there.

My counter spell of choice is Mana Leak. My dilemma is, that I usually want to use it early in the game, because it is harder for my opponent to pay the additional mana cost and my plan is to stall him anyway in the beginning. On the downside I have used my counter spells often before the real threats are out there and my opponent feels comfortable in the middle to end game because he knows that it is unlikely that I have any more counter spells available. I also do not want to use my counter spells after round 5, because I usually need my mana in those rounds to pump out and resurrect creatures. Without any ramps in this deck I have no flexibility to save up mana each turn instead of playing my creatures.

What is the expert opinion on that dilemma? How do I decide when to use my counter spells? Can I even formulate such a strategy without knowing the deck of my opponent well?

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3 Answers 3

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Considering your link to Solar Flare builds, I'll assume you're talking about the Standard format as of right now.

The timing of your counters relies heavily on what deck your opponent is running. To some extent, it does rely on knowing your opponent's deck, but most Standard decks fall into an archtype. Recognizing those archtypes isn't too difficult if you spend some time in the format, and recognition means you'll know what some of the more commonly-run threats for those decks are.

Assuming your opponent is running aggro and is effectively racing to see if they can take you down before you can start to get some of your meaner cards (traditionally Sun Titan into a Liliana via Unburial Rites, etc.), you need to be able to survive their early game. This may mean throwing counters away early on, on things that could build into bigger threats (e.g. Lord of the Unreal, Phantasmal Image, Stromkirk Noble, etc.) to slow them down.

Assuming your opponent is running control, you're looking for bombs and other counters. They're doing the same thing as you; playing the waiting game, looking for the opportunity to get something game-winning through. This often means a slow game, where each player will play a land and then pass, leaving mana open for counters and their-turn fun (like White Sun's Zenith, Blue Sun's Zenith, and Forbidden Alchemy).

Midrange decks are much harder to gauge - you'll often have to play a game before you get a good feeling for what their bombs are, what you're watching out for.

Lastly, one of the strongest things you can do is threaten a counter. Whether or not you have one in hand (and whether or not you're even playing them, if you're still playing blue), if you leave mana open for a counter, they may not play a more threatening card for risk of it getting countered. Never let your opponent feel comfortable - even if you've played three Mana Leaks, what's to say you don't have another counter (Dissipate, Negate, etc.), or destruction, or a Snapcaster! For this reason, I'd caution against tapping out, as you lose this threat entirely.

One more note - there's a reason Snapcaster Mage is so popular! Every Snapcaster (ideally used) means another Mana Leak, Dissipate, Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, or Dismember that you've already used once.

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I always consider what is being cast and how it might impact me. A 2/2 first striker? I won't worry too much about it because I have other answers for that. A 1/1 infect flyer? That can be a pain from time to time so I might get rid of that. As others have suggested anthems are probably not worth countering unless they're really a threat ... Honor of the Pure? Maybe not ... True Conviction? Countered!

You know what threats your deck can otherwise clear, so concentrate on the stuff you don't have good answers for and on things that seem key to your opponent's strategy (of which you have imperfect knowledge).

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+1, but even True Conviction can be a dud if your opponent has no creatures. I think it's worth emphasizing that you can't say "always counter [card]" or "never counter [card];" you always have to consider the game state. –  David Z Jan 13 '12 at 20:52
    
Absolutely @DavidZaslavsky, if my opponent has a horde and tries to cast TC ... uh yeah ... good idea to counter it. If he's looking at an empty battlefield ... not so important. –  Stephen Jan 14 '12 at 3:57

Well, knowing the (approximate) deck of your opponent well will certainly help you immeasurably when deciding what to counter. But assuming you have no idea what he's playing:

You need to understand your own game plan. As you say, you want to survive until the sixth or seventh turn, at which point you have better things to do. So, you'll have to counter or otherwise deal with spells which threaten to kill or severely damage you before the mid-game rolls around. For instance, you probably won't need to counter spells like Ponder that merely improve your opponent's card selection; but you will definitely want to stop him getting down efficient turn-2 and turn-3 beaters, especially if you have no other removal in hand.

Deciding when to leave up counter mana is even harder than deciding when to counter something, but it follows the same basic principles: if I tap out now, and my opponent plays creature x, is it going to cause serious problems for my game plan? If so, it may be better not to take the risk and keep the counter option available, even if this slows down your development. It's a risk-reward thing - in this respect, sometimes Magic is a lot like poker...

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A lot of decks solve the issue of when to leave up counter mana by just playing almost everything at instant speed. This is why Forbidden Alchemy works so well in Flare, for instance -- you can leave up counter / removal mana for your opponent's turn, and play Alchemy on his end step if he doesn't do anything relevant. –  Alex P Jan 13 '12 at 17:27
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Sure, but Wizards tends not to create environments where there is no benefit to be gained from tapping out. (At least not any more - I used to play Draw-Go back in the day when it was almost unbeatable.) You can play as much of your game as possible at instant speed, but it would be too easy if you could play your entire game in your opponent's end step! –  thesunneversets Jan 13 '12 at 20:37

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