Counterspell has never found it’s way into modern, but now something with unexpected similarity is pervasive in standard in the form of Silumgar’s Scorn. I’m going to talk about when to and when not to play around it.
This is the first installment in a short series about how to play against control in Standard. I’m going to be dealing specifically with standard Esper Dragon Control decks, but it’s my hope that in talking about the specifics of a very peculiar version of the archetype we can gain insight into the theory behind beating dominant control decks in any format.
How to Not Play Around Silumgar’s Scorn
“How can I break through that wall of countermagic?” you may ask yourself, staring down your opponents untapped islands. If you hate playing against countermagic, I have bad news for you, Silumgar’s Scorn, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Dig Through Time aren’t going anywhere for a long time.
It’s easy to get frustrated, I’ve been on both sides of that table. The control player gleefully flicking through his cards, knowing there’s no question that he can’t answer; and the midrange opponent, playing one threat each turn, just to get it countered or removed.
I want to think of this first article as a kind of therapy, we can sit and relax, and just accept. Accept that it’s okay that Counterspell is in standard, that Counterspell as a concept is okay even when you’re not the one playing them. They don’t have to make you mad, in fact, sometimes they can be quite useless.
So now we’re going to do some breathing exercises, a chant. Today our mantra is: make them have it.
The Basic Scenario
You’re on the play against an Esper control player. It’s game one and you’re already in the tank as early as turn three. The board is empty. They have two untapped lands, a temple of deceit and an island. You play your third land, and wonder if you should jam your three mana creature into your control opponent’s open mana.
You think, “Silumgar’s Scorn isn’t always Counterspell!”
Maybe you should wait a turn, I mean, you do have a fourth untapped land in hand, and with just a bit of patience, you could play the same threat next turn and stop them from being able to use their Silumgar’s Scorn as a Force Spike, on the off chance they don’t have a dragon, potentially giving your spell the opportunity to resolve.
I’m here to tell you that you should pretty much never do that, and that there are very few places where playing around the force spike mode on the card is the right thing to do.
Here’s a couple reasons why you should jam the spell:
Make Them Have It
“Om…” Wrong mantra!
“Making them have it,” is a time-honored Magic tradition, quintessential to the strategy of the game. In the specific case that I offered above, they either have Silumgar’s Scorn or Ultimate Price (and that’s only applicable sometimes), or they can’t answer it until next turn. That’s something like four to seven possible answers out of sixty cards.
One of the most important things to remember about Counterspells is that they’re not infallible. When the card is being cast, sure they’re the bee’s knees, but there is absolutely nothing they can do to help deal with a resolved permanent.
If they don’t have the Scorn, or Price, this forces them to not only muster up a removal spell, but also another black mana for that removal spell. Sometimes it all works out for your opponents, but part of making them have it, is taking advantage of the times that it doesn’t.
The other reason you make them have it is because you’re not going to win a game where you’re constantly playing around what removal the reactive player could have.
As the proactive player, you can’t play the game just hoping that they have nothing or that they mess up and give you an opening to resolve a spell. Most of the time, the proactive player wins the game by constructing a sequence in which the control player either runs out of relevant removal, or maneuvers the control player into allowing the proactive player to resolve what I call a decisive spell. A decisive spell is a spell that is so contextually powerful in the matchup that resolving it results in a dramatic increase in your win percentage. A good example of a decisive spell against control is Nissa, Worldwaker.
Usually to do this, you will have to produce a lot of threats that have to be answered, in such a way that you can find an opening to resolve the spell that really matters.
Giving Them Time To Draw Outs
So let’s say that you do wait. Perhaps, you’re lucky and they have the perfect hand for you to play around: five lands and a Silumgar’s Scorn. So you wait, and turn four you unload your creature onto the field.They play their scorn, you move your hand towards your untapped mana… and they reveal a Dragonlord Ojutai.
You should’ve seen this coming and here’s why.
By playing around the Scorn and holding your threat back for a moment, even with their incredibly risky hand, you’re giving them an extra draw step to draw into a surprising number of relevant cards. They could draw into any of their dragons, as presented above, but also they could draw into any number of Dissolves or Hero’s Downfalls. The fact is that there is a far higher probability of them having some combination of those cards than the original turn two Scorn you were worried about.
So then, in the basic scenario, when do we play around the Force Spike?
The first prerequisite to playing around the force spike mode is that you are playing a threat-light deck or hand. If you’re playing a threat-dense deck or hand, then there is absolutely no reason for you to not keep jamming threats.
The second prerequisite is that you know, for some reason, what’s going on in the opponent’s hand.
So you’re playing Abzan control, and you have fired off a turn two Thoughtseize, and you see a hand of Silumgar’s Scorn, Dragonlord Ojutai, and five lands. Your hand is Courser of Kruphix, Seige Rhino, Elspeth, Tasigur, and two lands. I think there is a valid argument to be made towards stripping away the dragon and playing the Courser patiently. In this very specific scenario, although you are giving them time, you know almost exactly what they have, and there’s little point to throwing away a valuable card like Courser to a force spike that might be ineffectual a turn later, nor do you want an unchecked Dragonlord stealing the game.
Even then, I’m still skeptical, because you are giving them two whole draw steps of unknowns, and if they draw into a Dragonlord, and then a removal spell, it’s going to feel really bad letting yourself fall behind in tempo like that. But I’ll acknowledge that there are these corner case scenarios such as this where patience really might be the best course.
Beyond the Basic Scenario
The reasons I talked about above are actually applicable beyond the turn three scenario that I described.
The idea of making them have it is often going to be even more important as you approach the game’s conclusion, often leading to a final game-ending spell, where you cast it and look up at your opponent hopefully, the game hinging on their reaction.
Further, the idea of avoiding giving your opponents time becomes even more relevant the later the game goes. Every draw step you give them is another where their Silumgar’s Scorn becomes closer to Counterspell than Force Spike. The later into the game you go, the more you should treat Silumgar’s Scorn as a counterspell, that’s part of what makes this card so powerful. Either they finally draw into that dragon, or it sits on the table being hexproof.
One scenario where jamming a spell into a force spike can be hugely beneficial that’s not included in the Basic Scenario is one where their casting of Silumgar’s Scorn results in mana difficulties. For example, pretend in the basic scenario instead of a Temple of Deceit and an Island, they had two Polluted Deltas.
In this case, if they crack both fetches for Islands, its very possible that it will hurt them more than your spell not resolving hurt you. Most experienced control players won’t dig themselves into this whole, but if you can force it, you should.
However, one of the most amazing things about magic is how the game is so context specific. There is no exhaustive handbook that anyone can present to you, but I’ve tried to clarify a couple cases where the answer is relatively clear. In the end, it’s your decision. It’s up to you to establish the context, to anticipate what’s in your opponents hand, to understand your deck and the match-up.
In that final moment, it’s just you and a vital decision, based on countless considerations, and it’s up to you to choose the right line of play.
But you should probably just jam the spell.