Historically Speaking – A Brief History of Countering Abilities

(Repudiate // Replicate | Art by Victor Adame Minguez)

Defining Terms

Welcome to Historically Speaking, where we examine the history that has led Magic to where it is today. In this installment, we’re going to examine some of the game’s strangest counterspells. Not the ones that counter spells, but the ones that counter abilities.

For the purposes of embarking upon this journey though some of the most annoying (and cost-effective) counters for activated or triggered abilities in Magic: the Gathering, we must define our terms. I’m not going to be discussing “prison”-style cards (typically enchantments). So none of this:

We’re talking about the history of instant-speed, hard counters to activated or triggered abilities. These are efficient, and tend to be really dependent on timing to get the most power out of them, typically like a bolt from the blue (ha). Blue is a greedy and grasping color, not in flavor, perhaps, but in action. It wasn’t for nothing that Mark Rosewater of Wizards of the Coast called blue their “problem child”; the color could do anything, and it took abilities from other colors. We’re going to discuss green’s initial mastery of countering activated abilities, blue’s takeover, and the reluctant ceasefire/frenemy status that allowed both colors to cooperate most recently.

It feels like a good idea to quote from the poet Charles Simic here, and not just because of the name. This quote is from his work, “Regarding my Neighbors, the Hittites” and was running through my head through the writing of this article.

Because the tail can’t wag the cow.
Because the woods can’t fly to the dove.
Because the stones haven’t said their last word.
Because dunghills rise and empires fall.

Feeling Rusty

The ability to counter an activated ability at instant speed has a surprising history. While the effect is now associated with blue almost exclusively, the first color to demonstrate the effect in Magic: The Gathering history was green. You all know green, right? Blue’s best frenemy/nemesis, hater of artifice, patron of multi-ton creatures across the multiverse.

The first Stifle-esque effect debuted way back in Legends as a humble common. Prove it, you say? Gladly. Meet my good friend, and bane to all Equipment everywhere:

Rust isn’t much to look at; as the color pie grew more articulated over time, green and red gained the lion’s share of artifact destruction, both targeted and sweeping.

But what Rust did was establish that green (followed by blue and white) was the color that could reach right into the various magical machine’s gear-based, whirring hearts and still them with precision. At this stage in the game, only artifact activated abilities could be countered.

Another printed card from Legends that counters artifacts’ activated abilities (and, to my mind, is criminally under-used as a commander) is our good friend and face paint aficionado, Ayesha Tanaka. True, she’s not a hard counter to a Nevinyrral’s Disk or Oblivion Stone, but she does love a Mycosynth Lattice. Since Legends was the first Magic: the Gathering set to include multi-colored cards (those innocent, halcyon days of 1994), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit wonky, but she’s still interesting.

So we’ve established at this point that early in Magic‘s history, green has the hard counters to artifacts’ tricky activated abilities. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.


1995-1997: Green Light, Blue Light

Green keeps going strong with the printing of another artifact-hoser in 1995’s Ice Age set. You may know him best from his reprinting Mirrodin, though.

We’ve moved from a one-time counter, an interruption, to a repeatable effect that can effectively shut down any given artifact with an activation cost (which is most non-creature artifacts). True, he’s a puny 1/1, but you can do some nasty things with the Ouphe. He’s a rather undervalued card, seeing play in only 30 decks.

But then the script flips when Tempest comes out in 1997. For the first time, blue, even then firmly established as the color of counterspells, finally gained a toehold on green’s turf. Take a look:

Interdict is a clear sign, in retrospect, that blue can do literally anything. Not just artifact abilities are fair game to this card: any permanent’s activated ability is included. This would be the trend going forwards as this type of counter was further developed. Interdict has the unique text that prevents the ability being used again that turn, meaning it can totally shut off cards that pay life to activate. Green would still have a hand in countering some activated abilities, but in the long term, the majority of such effects would go to blue from now on.

From there, things are pretty silent on the “counter activated ability front” until Invasion.


Cantrippy: 2000+

Green wasn’t about to let blue take all its fun. So a pattern emerges from Interdict onwards: if an effect counters an activated ability only, it must cost about two mana and draw you a card. Look no further than Bind, which follows in the path of Interdict.

But as these things go, green couldn’t hold up blue’s erosion of its flavor territory. Blue sets one precedent, then makes another. Let’s look at the card that helped name the archetype we have been discussing. It’s 2003, and the set is Scourge.

This card used to give players nightmares. It turned fetchlands into useless cardboard for a single blue mana. Anything you wanted to do besides attack or block with a creature? Hard no. It is impossible to overstate how bone-grindingly annoying this card was for the longest time, and all for the lowest possible mana cost.


Green Strikes Back; It’s not Enough

Green received a few crumbs in Mirrodin, released later, in 2003, like the reprinting of Brown Ouphe. But wait, he brought friends!

Now we see the merger between countering an artifact’s abilities and destroying it. The Vandals don’t allow you to draw a card, but it does make sure that activated abilities can’t run roughshod over green. I’m shocked that we don’t see the Ouphes in more Karador or Meren decks that rely on sacrifices to run their attrition engines. Still, despite these gains, blue gained primacy in terms of countering activated and triggered abilities thanks in large part to Stifle as a precedent.

In 2004, Bind was functionally reprinted in Champions of Kamigawa… in blue.

It looked like it was all over for green. Its era of being able to counter activated or triggered abilities with relative impunity was gone… or so it seemed.


Light at the End of the Hall

Then came Ravnica: City of Guilds in 2006, when countering activated and triggered abilities went back to its roots. Take a look:

Blue allowed white and green to have their hands back into the game. Voidslime is most worthy of discussion of the two cards. It’s a counterspell wrapped around a Rust and/or Stifle, and is the standard for Simic countermagic to this day, since it’s three mana to solve target problem or potential problem. Instead of totally squeezing green out of the ecosystem, blue grudgingly admitted that there was enough room for green to share the “counter target ability” pie.


Kicking and Screaming into Modernity

Since the printing of Voidslime, most of the ‘counter target ability’ spells or abilities have been blue. Take a look at some of them:

However, green does sometimes come peeking in occasionally to see how things are getting along.


Flavor of Super-Precise Removal

I’d like to close up this article by talking about the flavor of countering someone’s activated or triggered ability. Both green and blue pride themselves on knowledge, and thus hitting a complex organism or fantasy machine or ever-shifting skein of magical law at just the right point to massage both the Simic player’s ego and diffuse the threat, for now.

Both colors are concerned with time: blue always seems to want more of it, and green seems to be comfortable with the concept of Deep Time beyond human lifespans.

Finding that key moment of vulnerability, to understand how a particular system works and stymie it with a well-placed blast of magic or bout of Ravenous Slime… that’s what it feels like to be a biomancer or rogue researcher who hasn’t spoken to anything but mutants for years at a time. The ability to say yes or no to some aspect of reality, be it vascular or mechanical. To drown your opponent in an eternal moment.

In short, while it may have taken decades to get here, blue and green can finally hold something in common, a shared ability outside of +1/+1 counters or love of weird creatures, even if blue takes more than its share. We wouldn’t expect anything less.

I'm from just north of hell, I was schooled in a blossoming backwater, and currently am the worst living bureaucrat since Franz Kafka breathed his last, tremulous breath. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since middle school, and Commander in particular since college, putting about a decade of experience brewing, scheming and fuming over historical travesties under my belt. I get dizzy walking in straight lines. 
I recently received my MFA from Arcadia University's creative writing program. My work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Stonecoast Review, Devilfish Review and Bride of Chaos.