Counterspell and Sanctum Prelate in Horizons 2

It would seem that Wizards is growing impatient. The stated beginning of Modern Horizons 2 previews was next week. However, as part of their announcement of the “Summer of Legend” (which trips my marketing gag reflex), Wizards gave us some early spoilers. Clearly intended to whet player appetites for what is to come, the spoilers were mainly a showcase for new-to-Modern reprints. Very significant new-to-Modern reprints which are expected to have a big impact on Modern. However, if their home formats are instructive, players are overreacting.

Following the reveal, I was struck by Wizards’ decision to use the pre-Eighth Edition borders for some of the alternate frames. I forgot how nostalgic that old border is for me and that it has a great fantasy vibe. It’s not as functional due to smaller text boxes, but that’s not a concern for me as an experienced, enfranchised player. I was subsequently horrified to realize that my reaction is exactly what Wizards is going for and a naked ploy to push sales. I hate falling for marketing. I’m still buying a box, maybe two, but I want it on record and in writing that it’s not because of the blatant pandering. I’m overjoyed that Organized Play in the US is set to resume May 28, my LGS is going to host events again, and I have plans. Plans which require…cards.

At Last, Counterspell!

I’m going to start with the announcement that is least noteworthy. Not because it isn’t a huge or exciting addition, but because it’s been expected since original Modern Horizons. Counterspell, the proper named card not the spell mechanic, is in MH2. Which is huge, and I’m certain that (if the old paper crowd returns in June, anyway) I’ll be facing numerous decks rocking full sets of the definitive way to say NO! I know a lot of dedicated control players, and they’ll be overjoyed to use Counterspell in Modern. However, it’s not entirely news.

I, and I remember many others, assumed that the “long asked for blue card in Modern” Wizards teased in their marketing was Counterspell. This being the year after Mark Rosewater revealed that Counterspell was considered for Standard, it made perfect sense. If Wizards thinks that Counterspell is almost fine for Standard, it’s definitely fine for Modern. I, and I imagine everyone else too, was very surprised when instead it was Flusterstorm. Since then, I’ve just assumed that it was only a matter of time before it happened. And now it has.

Expectations

And to listen to the community reaction, the singular addition of Counterspell will make Modern into a Control Format. Modern finally getting a cheap, universal counter that is actually relevant at all points in the game means that it doesn’t have to make due with underpowered conditional answers. Instead, it can actually keep up with the threats. This is significant because Standard tends to get specialized answers rather than general purpose ones.

It’s a deliberate choice by Wizards, since they want creatures to matter and don’t want Standard to have removal that’s too good compared to creatures. Which means that Modern control must rely on picking exactly the right tools for the job rather than rely on a few very strong ones. When all the answers answer everything, decks naturally converge. Making answers niche means that control must pick a variety of spells for any situation, which makes the decks more interesting and matches more dynamic.

However, Modern’s control players have long complained that this was why the archetype has floundered in Modern. The logic is that Modern is too diverse, and it is impossible for control decks to pack all the right answers because there has been a lack of general answers. Thus, pure control has been a rarity, particularly in two-color combinations. This is especially true given how strong threats have been getting relative to answers. The addition of Counterspell will even the playing field, which will be good in the long run, as control is an important piece of healthy metagames.

Legacy Says?

While it is important to remember that Modern is not Legacy, we can at least use Counterspell‘s place in that format to make educated guesses about Modern. And the news is not good. Counterspell is a one- or two-of in Legacy decks. This has been true since at least the Miracles era. While having an unequivocal answer to anything is potent, it really isn’t necessary in Legacy control decks. Part of this is that Force of Will is essential in Legacy and takes up the space for pure counterspells. There’s not much space left over for all the cantrips, removal spells, and win conditions particularly since Force of Negation became a maindeck card. The other problem is that Counterspell costs UU all the time. Legacy runs so lean that two mana is a huge investment. Relying on Counterspell risks losing a counter war on efficiency.

Modern’s mana is not as constrained as Legacy’s, but the point is still relevant. UU may not be a dealbreaker cost- or even color-wise, but playing Counterspell does mean forgoing other options. No control deck can just pack all of the counterspells and plan to completely control the game. Or ever beat Cavern of Souls, for that matter. Given how Modern’s hard control decks are built, I can’t imagine that it will ever be less than a three-of in Modern because there’s already typically a slot for four two-mana counters. They’re just split between multiple counters. It’s outside of Esper and UW Control that I’m skeptical. Do tempo decks or aggro-control want to hold up double blue? Plus, even in the control decks, there are the utility spells to consider, and a lot of them overlap with Counterspell.

This strongly suggests that Counterspell is not going to be a four-of once initial excitement dies down. It’s powerful and cheap relative to other counters, but it still doesn’t answer on-board threats or do anything else when you don’t need a counter.   Modern doesn’t have Force of Will, after all. However, it’s important to remember that Counterspell is only a tool, and over-reliance on one tool is not a recipe for success.

My Prediction

First things first: the addition of Counterspell does not uniquely make control viable. It already is, as constantly evidenced by the metagame data. The problem, especially over the past year, is MTGO. I’ve won matches against control thanks to them timing out more times than I can count. I had lost the game, unequivocally, but my opponent couldn’t present an actual win condition quickly enough to beat the client’s clock as well as their opponent. If you can’t win in 25 minutes, I feel no sympathy despite knowing that I would have lost the match if it was paper Magic. Consequently, control doesn’t hit its “true” metagame numbers thanks to time-out match losses. Thus I don’t think there will be any change to control’s metagame potential, even if it definitely will see more play.

As for Counterspell itself, I expect it to replace Mana Leak. There is no reason that a deck that could cast a 1U counterspell can’t make a UU spell on turn two; just look at the Bring to Light decks. Counterspell will not completely replace the other counters, however. The more expensive ones (Cryptic Command and Archmage’s Charm) have too much flexibility to drop. Force of Negation is free, and that will keep it in rotation. Remand will also stay, as it’s too potent a tempo tool and doesn’t see play in hard control much anyway.

The other niche counters will drop off, but probably won’t disappear. Deprive still has value for landfall triggers, especially if something similar to Mystic Sanctuary comes along. Logic Knot loses its place as the best two-mana counter, but it won’t disappear entirely. It’s still the best two-mana counter that isn’t Counterspell, and it has additional value. Delve means that Knot lets control sculpt its graveyard, such as proactively for Inverter of Truth or defensively against Tarmogoyf and Drown in the Loch. I also expect Spell Snare to resurface as an answer to Counterspell, but Veil of Summer is probably just better in that role.

The Prowess Killer?

Next is a card that is very near and dear to my Legacy deck, Sanctum Prelate. This is a card that players have speculated about ever since Containment Priest was reprinted in Core 2021. If one Death and Taxes creature from a Commander set was fine in Modern, why not two? Especially one with symmetrical disruption abilities rather than an annoying card advantage mechanic (*cough* Palace Jailer). In fact, I thought that Prelate was such an eventual shoe-in for Modern, I didn’t even really consider it when I was speculating on MH2 back in December. It just makes sense as a disruptive white creature against noncreature spells that isn’t just another taxing effect would eventually make its way to Modern. Especially in light of Elite Spellbinder.

Expectations

The title of this section really gives it away, doesn’t it? Yes, the conversations about Prelate’s arrival in Modern are primarily focused on its use against Prowess. And it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of Prowess’ spells, particularly Boros but Izzet too, cost one mana. Mono-Red is less affected and could more easily escape Prelate lock thanks to Bonecrusher Giant. Given that Prowess variants are the most popular decks in Modern and Chalice of the Void isn’t exactly keeping them down, more help is welcome. And Prelate has the big advantage of preventing Prowess from throwing spells away just to get prowess triggers. A very solid addition to Modern.

Of course, that’s not the only application. Shutting off critical mana costs against control and combo (sweeper and engine cards respectively) also sounds good. Naming four against control decks and two against Storm will be Very Big Game, as well as four against Scapeshift decks. One deck I’ve heard discussed as targeted is Tron, but I expect that will just lead to grief. There was a time when naming seven would have been lights out for Tron, but that was five years ago. These days Tron has too many haymakers at different costs, and too many of them are creatures for that to be effective.

However, it is also worth remembering that Prelate can be used in a defensive way rather than the mentioned proactive manner. Should Prelate make its way into Heliod Company (a big ask, given how full the three-drop slot already is), it would use Prelate on one to protect against removal, allowing Heliod to combo off unmolested. I can’t imagine this working out for any other deck, but it’s important to remember the utility exists.

Legacy Says?

All that being said and from personal experience, the only way that Sanctum Prelate sees play in Legacy is a maindeck one-of as part of Recruiter of the Guard packages. Death and Taxes is most common, but Humans and Esper Vial also run that package. Depending on the metagame and other sideboard pressures, there will be another Prelate in the sideboard. Back in the Miracles era, it was usually correct to maindeck both Prelates, but that hasn’t been necessary since that time. Two Prelates were essential in the grindfest which was Death and Taxes vs Miracles because you wanted the first set to one against Swords to Plowshares and the second on six against Terminus. Since then, the only real usage has been naming one against Delver or two against Lands.

The issue with Prelate in Legacy is that it costs three. That is far too much against most combo decks. Most Storm variants aim for a turn 2-3 combo and are capable of turn 1 kills, while Reanimator usually goes for it turn 1-2. That means that Prelate just closes the door on an already locked out opponent. I usually name four with Prelate against combo as a result. Against Delver, shutting off the cantrips and removal at any time is good, but after that Prelate is just a 2/2. That’s very bad if you’re already behind on board because now Swords is dead too.

Modern doesn’t have anything like Recruiter, so Prelate will have to stand on its own. Fortunately, Modern combo is not fast enough to outpace Prelate, so it remains a viable anti-combo card. The small body is still a problem, but Humans has repeatedly proven that it can be overcome.

My Prediction

Prelate will definitely see at least some sideboard play. The effect is too strong against certain types of decks. However, I’m very skeptical of Prelate making any maindecks without a major and likely unhealthy metagame shift. Three mana is a lot, and more importantly, that is a very crowded mana cost in white creature decks. I don’t think Prelate is sufficiently better than the existing options against sufficiently many decks for it to beat Mantis Rider, Archon of Emeria, or Spike Feeder any time soon. However, as a two-of in the sideboard for combo and control matchups, I think Prelate will be an excellent addition to Modern.

As for its impact, the overall impact will be muted. That’s just how it goes with a sideboard card. However, the fear of getting Prelate locked, especially for Prowess, may drive them to diversify their spells. Bonecrusher is likely to get a lot more time in Modern, and I imagine sideboard answers will diversify as well just to keep from being beaten by a single card. However, Prowess may also just go more in on Kozilek’s Return rather than worry about Prelate. Chatter indicates the former is likely, but I suspect the latter is more efficient.

Modern’s Changing, Again

After a few calm sets, Modern is about to get shaken up again. Everything is now crossed for nothing even remotely Hogaak-esque. I’m just about to get paper back, and I want to be able to enjoy it.

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