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They all Look the Same
By Bruno Stella
They all look the same.

Whether they are tall, short, fat or thin, they all have that smirk on their faces, the one that says, " Man, I am in total control, and the only reason I'm playing is to show you what a loser you are."

"I'll play Scaled Wurm", you say, playing your last card, but the tone in your voice already says that it is an exercise in futility.
"No, I don't think so," he replies, fiddling theatrically with his cards, " I think I'll counter that... with Counterspell ... or Dismiss ... umm ... so many choices ... how 'bout you pick for me?"
He reveals a hand with five counters and the ubiquitous Fact or Fiction.
The arrogant Blue mage smirks and stretches out a greasy hand.
"Game?"

Later, the bludgeoned, bloody body of a gamer is mysteriously found in the rest room of Ye Olde Card Shoppe...mouth stuffed full of counter spells ... police have several million suspects...

Alright, so the last bit is fantasy, but we have all had it handed to us at some or other time by mono blue. And it really is that frustrating if you are not prepared for the match up. My first encounter with the deck was at my first tournament, wielded by a player who had made the South African national team. It was, shall we say, a learning experience....

I love Blue.

Not because I like to humiliate opponents with evil mono blue counter decks, but because I love the rich card interactions that blue can generate, the 'light' feeling a blue deck has as you race through it with its card drawing, and yes, the security that if the worst comes to the worst, you can always say "no!" to your opponent's 12 point Blaze.

However, I have run into plenty of beginners who don't have a clue as to beat counter - based strategies, resulting in much complaining, and this article is largely for them.

*Even Mono-Blue is not so Bad*

As casual players we should not necessarily hate even mono blue, however. We don't *have* to play against the deck, unlike in a tournament environment. Besides, mono blue is one end of a spectrum - at the other end lie the smoldering Sligh decks, ready to kill on turn four if your development is even a little slow. Yet nobody really complains against these decks, which can also feel unfair when taking your new four colour 'special' for a spin, or anything vaguely slow.

That's because Sligh never says "no" to anything you play ... and mono blue does.

People hate being told they can't do something. Yet I would argue that Sligh does say "no" - because it kills you before you get your deck rolling - and in a sense says "no" to your entire deck.

I find the match up of mono blue against a good aggro deck to be stimulating from either viewpoint, because its the (hopefully) icy nerve of the Blue mage against the raw speed and power of the Green or Red mage, its the baiting out of counter spells with fodder and the applying of whuppass to the hapless counter spell - lover ... or it's the desperate counter - bounce - draw cycle, racing against time to gain control before the Blastoderm beats your face in, and then not getting reckless if control is achieved, because there is always that last Shock that can steal the game....

In short, it is a match up that needs skill and nerve to win using either the control deck or the aggro deck, and it is another interesting flavour that comes in the game called Magic.

On the other hand, if your playgroup does not go so far as to 'ban' deck types, and you are persistently getting your head smashed by some Blue fiend, well, the environment has never been better for defeating mono blue. Other than going the Sligh route*, there are other ways to construct decks that defeat counter based strategies.

To do this we have to analyse how a pure blue deck wins. Essentially, it trades cards one for one with you via counter spells, while drawing more cards at the same time. Eventually it has more counter spells than you have threats to play, and it has also bounced the threats you have played to your hand ... at which point it has 'control' of the game, and it can dictate what cards can or cannot (usually not!) be played. It drops its win condition, such as Mahamoti Djinn or activates Stalking Stones, and kills you under counter spell cover.

The key to beating mono blue is tempo, mana cost and must - counter spells.

Must - counter spells are spells that the mono blue deck must counter or risk losing the game. These can take many forms, and are situational. On 20 life no Blue mage will counter a Shock, on 2 life Shock is a must counter spell. The key is to having more must - counter spells than the control deck, which puts the pressure on their counter spell count in their deck.

One of the reasons Counterspell and its derivatives are so powerful is because for a mere two or three mana they can negate a play costing typically four mana and up**. This means that the aggro player has used up most of the mana on his turn, while the control player still has mana left for card drawing (Fact or Fiction, Whispers of the Muse etc) at the end of the said aggro players turn.

This is major tempo advantage, because the control player is doing more stuff with less mana than the aggro player. And because the Blue player still can draw cards with 'left over' mana, it means card advantage as well. And so he will strangle you out of the game.

Now, the problem for the Blue mage comes when the tables are turned. Sligh wins because its threats are so cheap, typically costing less that half of the mana of the counter spells available to the Blue mage. Thus, not only can the Blue mage not counter all the threats because of lack of mana, but if she tries, there will be no mana to draw cards, and no mana to bounce opposing creatures. Bouncing will be useless in any case, because : the bounce spell costs more than the threat being bounced = tempo & card disadvantage.

So, even if you are not playing Sligh, the lesson is to make sure you can play threats nice and early, and that these threats are worth playing - which means efficiency in the creature you choose. For example, Horned Troll is a lesser threat for green to lay down than Trained Armodon. If it is beat down that you want, the 3/3 body is usually better than the 2/2 regenerator. And even better than 'vanilla' creatures like the Armodon are more conditional creatures like Phyrexian Negator, a 5/5 for three mana with a hefty drawback *** - but not against mono blue, that is. There are even purpose built creatures especially made for dismantling counter decks that are OK creatures in their own right, like Spellbane Centaur that can be used to stiffen a regular beatdown deck against these particular foes. Other fun options are Yavimaya Barbarian (RG, 2/2, protection from Blue) and even Simian Grunts, which can be played as an instant at the end of the Blue mage's turn can help your deck out without making it suck.

Savage sideboard cards like Boil and Choke can completely wreck a counter spell deck, but they are pretty useless against most other decks. There are other cards that one can employ against Blue that are still useful against the rest of the field, such as Sudden Impact best used at the end of your turn, after the Counterspell - lover has tapped out to draw cards, and especially good against a 5 - 0 Fact or Fiction split. Sudden Impact is also a nice riposte to Upheaval, and if the blue mage has been careless in not floating mana for Counterspell, the damage will result in severe cranial agony. We keep in mind, of course, that Sudden Impact is still very usable as a finisher against other opponents. Another card, Blood Oath, set to type "instant" can do a heck of a lot of damage too. By playing must-counter, devastating instants like these, we lead the control player into either conserving mana for countering instead of drawing, (which lengthens the time for him to achieve control, thereby improving your own chances to kill him) or giving us opportunities to bluff these cards, allowing other threats to be laid down which would otherwise have been countered.

Some decks are intrinsically hard matchups for a counter based deck. The Mono Black Control decks from around the Odyssey block sporting a ton of discard (Mind Sludge - 4, Duress - 4) direct damage (Corrupt, Soul Burn more or less 4- 8 slots) very quick beats (Nantuko Shade - 4) were a particularly tough match, because the must counter spells here are already at at least 16. And that is excluding the Skeletal Scrying card drawing that you can't really allow, as that lets them refuel their hand. The real nightmare versions had Mesmeric Fiends that stripped even more counter magic from one's hand. In essence, the Duresses and Fiends acted as 'virtual' must counter spells that reduced the counter count in one's hand, while still remaining useful in other matchups.

The problem with these decks began when they had Cabal Coffers down, and enough mana to play several big bombs in one turn - and the control deck is stuck with a bunch of card drawing, a couple of counters and bounce. Not an unwinnable match up for a counter based deck - but hardly a pleasant one either. And MBC still remained useful against most other opponents. The key of course, is that "remaining useful in other matchups" ... there is no point in having a deck that can only beat mono blue and nothing else.

Other ideas to keep the pressure on a typical Blue control deck is the use of Haste - endowed creatures. They help in whittling the opponent's life score down faster, and reduce the effectiveness of opposing bounce. For example, if you attack me with a regular creature, and I bounce it, I have effectively bought two turns respite from that creature - this turn and next turn, where it will be in summoning sickness when it is replayed. A creature with Haste will be able to attack the same turn it is replayed, thus granting me no breathing room, and cutting down on the time I have to find permanent answers to it.

Newer offerings from Wizards include Flashback spells, which greatly assist the average non blue mage in combating a counter based strategy, by fighting blue in the card advantage department. Flashback allows pressure to be maintained for longer against a counter deck, and chews up the precious counter total by forcing key spells to be countered twice. There is a reason for Call of the Herd being so expensive...because itís that good. Sure, the blue mage can play the flashback version of counterspell, Fervent Denial, except that it costs five mana to come online, and she will dying from massive beats by then.

Storm is another nasty surprise, and typically hits the hardest just when Blue mages traditionally have taken control of a game - in the late game. I am particularly thinking of Reaping the Graves and possibly even Tendrils of Agony here. The clever Storm player will save up spells once it is obvious that the Blue mage is going to take control, and play a bunch of junk spells just to feed the storm - if the Blue player counters the junk, so much the better!

For example, you play Duress, and I counter. Then you play Withered Wretch, and, having some Deep Analyses in my graveyard I don't want to lose, I counter that too. Then you play the last card in hand - Reaping the Graves. Stormed, that is an additional five spells that I must counter - or you get back all the most important creatures I have laboriously been countering up till now. Tendrils of Agony at this point would result in 10 points of damage to my dome, which, depending on how well the early game has gone for you, could well spell my demise.

"Cannot be Countered" ... these three words are the ultimate in anti - blue technology. Cards like Urza's Rage can also steal the late game from a Counterspell based strategy****, provided that enough damage has been dealt early on. Obliterate can reset the board so that you can begin from the early game again, where other deck types are on the offensive against mono blue. You did remember to keep cards in hand so as to have plenty of gas to run on, right? Can't be countered creatures such as Scragnoth, Kavu Chameleon and Blurred Mongoose are good cards against mono blue's bounce - and - counter cycle, and reasonable cards against other decks too. If you play with sideboards, keep them there, and you could do worse than keeping Gaea's Herald in the 'board too.

Finally, my last argument as to why mono - blue should not be hated is also the reason as to why it is hated - it forces good play and good deck construction. If one is going to be facing down mono blue, we cannot afford to have dead or weak cards in a deck, because that is one less card that needs to be countered. Actual thought will have to go into the creating of a deck with synergy and speed : inefficiency is punished by mono blue. Poor or sloppy play will likewise be punished harder than against other deck types.

I can honestly say that I have learned more about deck construction, tight play and bluffing by going head to head with mono blue than any other deck ... even when I was ripped a new one. We stumble home, we think, we learn, and we grow stronger. The next time it will be your opponent to take the strain....

And, casual players, you don't *have* to play the match up, if its not your cup of tea.
----------------------------------------

*Sligh has excellent win percentages against mono blue, can stand up to most other decks, but can get a little stale after a while... For anyone who doesn't know what Sligh is (yes, I'm talking to you three in Putsonderwater!) it is a Red weenie deck featuring a host of 1 cc creatures like Jackal Pup and Mogg Fanatic and a bunch of cheap burn spells like Shock, Lightning Bolt and so forth. Because Sligh has such cheap threats, it can run less land than other decks, increasing its threat density and punching power early on.

** Smaller, less efficient threats are often temporarily ignorable, with the control player trading life for time until he is ready to bounce the irritating pests, or activates Stalking Stones etc.

***Obviously, the faster you can reduce a mono blue deck's life score, the more of your spells become must - counter spells, sooner.

**** Unless you happen to run into Misdirection .... oops!

-- Bruno Stella --
(Astranbrulth)

Read More Articles by Bruno Stella!

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