Several weeks back I began a series in which I dissected and comparing Magic: The Gathering sets, with an emphasis on drafting. In the first part I take a broad overview of the sets and set up the foundation for the rest of the series. In Part 2 I take a closer look at linear and modular cards specifically. Today, I continue this series by looking at counter and removal spells. In addition, I also hope to use this examination as an opportunity to talk about the importance of allowing players to interact in games.

The Counter Argument

That was the last time Jarqa tried his “lightning swallowing” routine

Before I start looking at the results of my study, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of removal and counter spells. One of the most horrible feelings that can happen when playing Magic, or any other game, is the feeling of helplessness. This feeling occurs whenever your opponent makes a move that you have no way to respond to, such as completely wiping your board or playing a huge threat that you have no responses to. Being in a situation where you feel like there is nothing that you can do can suck all of the fun out of a game, and should be avoided as much as possible.

Having the correct balance of counterspells and removal in a Magic set is integral to minimizing the number of times that a player cannot respond to a threat. Too many removal spells (or at too high of a power level) can make it difficult to set up your board, while too few (or too weak) can make it difficult to respond to your opponents threats. Both of these situations can result in a feeling of helplessness – either your opponent stops you from doing anything, or you are powerless to affect his threats.

It’s a Data!

Getting the right balance of counters and removal spells is clearly very important, but finding that balance can be difficult. Luckily, Wizards of the Coast has spent nearly 25 years of trial and error trying to figure it out, and I believe there is a lot that we can learn from their efforts.

As with the previous entries in this series, I began my research for this article by examining six Magic: The Gathering sets, and compiling my data into a spreadsheet. This week I analyzed the cards using a few major criteria. These include:

  1. Mana Cost
  2. What they can remove/counter
  3. Restrictions
  4. Ability to affect multiple things
  5. Rarity
  6. Instant Speed
  7. Additional  utility

When counting removal cards, I used a very broad definition of removal. Basically, if a card had the potential to destroy, exile, permanently lock down, or otherwise make a card basically unusable I counted it as “removal”. This includes things that do a single point of damage, put a card on the bottom of the deck, or prevent it from untapping indefinitely. I did not, however, include cards that sent back to the hand or cards that only prevent untapping for a turn or two.

Putting this all together took quite a bit of time, but I was able to come up with a number of very interesting results. In the following sections I will be going through each category one by one and presenting my thoughts. If you are interested in seeing the raw table of values, I will be including that at the end of the article.

Survey says….

“Do you think it’s friendly?”

The very first thing that I want to look at is how the six different sets compare with eachother based purely on amount of removal. Remarkably, there was surprisingly little variation among the three sets in this area. While the bottom 3 sets had slightly fewer counter and removal spells on average than the top 3 sets, the difference was actually pretty minimal.

The set that had the most counter and removal spells was Time Spiral with 64, and the set with the least was Avacyn Restored with 44. When you take As-fan and set size into account, the results get even closer. All six sets had an As-fan between 2.34 and 2.92, which means that you could expect about two and a half removal spells per pack. Counter and removal spells also made up between 18% and 21% of the total cards in the set.

Breaking it down

This statue is BAAAAADD!!

Unsurprisingly, the majority of this removal was for creatures. Each set contained between 35 and 51 cards that were capable of countering or removing at least 1 creature, and averaged out to about 44. This represents about 80% of the total removal in the sets, and about 15-17% of the set as a whole. I think this for a couple of main reasons. Firstly, creatures are incredibly popular, and make up a majority of the non-land cards in most decks. Secondly, creatures are the primary way of dealing damage and winning the game, so being unable to respond to a threatening creature can often cost the game.

Behind creatures, the next most affected card type was planeswalkers. This is a little deceiving, however, as included in this count are cards that are capable of damaging a player, and can therefore be redirected towards a planeswalker. Cards that specifically target a planeswalker are quite rare, but they are vulnerable to generic permanent destruction and counterspells. That being said, I do think it is important to have a number of ways to interact with planeswalkers because, even though they aren’t as common as creatures (especially in limited), they can often completely dominate a game if left unattended.

Behind planeswalkers were artifacts and enchantments. These two card types usually had pretty similar levels of removal, even going so far as to be on the same card many times. Each set had ~10 cards that affected each of these. Each set also had a handful of cards (3-6) that affected instants and sorceries, and between 5-7 that can destroy lands.

The exception to this last point is Khans of Tarkir, which had none. My theory for why is that Khans of Tarkir was a set that encouraged multi-color play, and therefore had a number of non-basic lands that allowed players to more easily play 3 colors. Land destruction would have severely hampered this goal, especially in limited.

What’s the Difference?

Well, clearly one of them is left handed

Now that we have looked at the similarities across all six sets, lets see if we can spot some important differences. Avacyn Restored, for instance, has a reputation for having it’s removal at too low of a power level. Does the data support this reputation?

Just looking at the numbers, a few differences do begin to show themselves. Firstly, Avacyn Restored has the fewest number of removal spells (44), the lowest as-fan (2.34). However, it does not have the smallest number of removal spells as a percentage of the set – that honor goes to Khans of Tarkir – and the differences in these amounts are actually very minor. I don’t believe that this in itself can justify it’s poor reputation.

When looking at the specifics of what the spells can destroy, however, we can begin to see a more striking difference. Only 35 spells in Avacyn Restored can destroy creatures – 6 fewer than the next lowest, Gatecrash. This set also has the lowest average damage of any set at 2.09. In fact, out of 11 spells that kill through damage, only 3 of them can destroy any creature with 3 toughness or more.

The Price is Right

“They burned my favorite chair! We’ll kill them all!” (Actual flavor text)

The final, and perhaps most striking difference, between Avacyn Restored’s removal and the other sets is in it’s mana curve. All five other sets had a removal mana curve that centers around 3, and gradually drops off on both sides. Basically, what this means is that most of the spells will cost between 2 and 4 mana to cast. This is important, because you want your removal spells to cost about the same as what they are removing. If the removal spells tend to be too cheap, they will either have to be very weak to compensate for the low price, or they will simply be too efficient and potentially unbalance the game. On the other hand, if the removal is generally much more expensive than what is being destroyed they need to have a big upside in order to justify the cost.

Avacyn Restored does not follow this pattern. Instead of having a relatively smooth curve centered around 3, this set has the majority of it’s removal cost either 1 mana or 5+. This creates a problem, because most of the removal is either too cheap to be useful, or too expensive to be practical in most cases.

Get to the Point


naturalize art
Is the sword becoming a tree, or the other way around?

After examining all of this data, I think there are a few main takeaways. Firstly, in any game it is important that your player does not feel helpless. In a game like Magic: The Gathering, one of the best ways to do this is by giving your players options and allowing them to respond to their opponents actions. Counterspells and removal are a great way to do this.

While most of this article was focused on Magic: The Gathering specifically, I think that the idea of allowing players to respond to their opponents actions can be applied to almost any competitive game. I learned this lesson the hard way early on with Vitae Quest, when I created a card that allowed one player to limit how much the other players could draw cards. I quickly realized that, by limiting drawing that player was basically shutting down their opponent’s options, making it extremely difficult for them to do anything and creating a feeling of hopelessness. From that point on I was extremely wary of cards that reduce any player’s ability to act, because it can ruin all enjoyment of the game.

Another example is in the field of fighting video games. In my opinion, one of the most brutal things in any game is the infinite combo. Basically, this is any series of moves that allows one player to repeatedly hit their opponent without giving them any chance to respond. Basically, once a player is able to begin the combo it’s game over.

Clearly, this is not a fun position for anybody to be in, and over the years developers have come up with a number of ways to prevent this situation. One solution is to give players the limited ability to break out of a combo, perhaps once a round. This allows them to see how the combo works, and hopefully gives them the information necessary to avoid it in the future. Other games simply have mechanics in place to artificially limit the length of a combo, or adjust things like gravity to make it difficult to maintain the combo over time.

Until Next Week

That’s all I have for this week. I hope you enjoyed the article! If you did, you can follow me here on WordPress,  Facebook, or Twitter so that you will always know when I post a new article. And join me next week, when I will be introducing my current game design project, Vitae Quest, and my early design journey.

Community Questions of the Week

  1. Where there any major categories or points that I missed in my analysis of removal and counterspells?
  2. What parts of a Magic set would you like me to dig into next?


Category Innistrad Time-Spiral Khans of Tarkir Avacyn Restored Battle For Zendikar Gatecrash Top 3 Bottom 3 Average
# Cards 264.00 301.00 269.00 244.00 274.00 249.00 278.00 255.67 266.83
# Counterspells/Removal 55.00 64.00 48.00 44.00 55.00 52.00 55.67 50.33 53.00
#Counterspells 4.00 5.00 7.00 3.00 5.00 5.00 5.33 4.33 4.83
#Removal 51.00 59.00 41.00 41.00 50.00 47.00 50.33 46.00 48.17
#Common 21.00 25.00 16.00 15.00 18.00 16.00 20.67 16.33 18.50
#Uncommon 13.00 17.00 17.00 14.00 17.00 15.00 15.67 15.33 15.50
#Rare 12.00 17.00 10.00 8.00 14.00 13.00 13.00 11.67 12.33
#Mythic Rare 5.00 3.00 3.00 5.00 4.00 2.67 4.00 3.33
1 CMC 6.00 7.00 6.00 11.00 3.00 7.00 6.33 7.00 6.67
2 CMC 9.00 11.00 10.00 6.00 9.00 17.00 10.00 10.67 10.33
3 CMC 13.00 19.00 11.00 8.00 16.00 7.00 14.33 10.33 12.33
4 CMC 10.00 12.00 8.00 6.00 9.00 8.00 10.00 7.67 8.83
5+ CMC 15.00 15.00 11.00 13.00 16.00 14.00 13.67 14.33 14.00
Affects Creatures 44.00 51.00 42.00 35.00 49.00 41.00 45.67 41.67 43.67
Affects Artifacts 7.00 13.00 11.00 10.00 8.00 14.00 10.33 10.67 10.50
Affects Enchantments 10.00 12.00 11.00 9.00 9.00 12.00 11.00 10.00 10.50
Affects Planeswalkers 13.00 19.00 16.00 15.00 18.00 21.00 16.00 18.00 17.00
Affects Sorceries 4.00 3.00 6.00 2.00 3.00 5.00 4.33 3.33 3.83
Affects Instants 4.00 3.00 6.00 2.00 4.00 4.00 4.33 3.33 3.83
Affects Lands 5.00 6.00 5.00 7.00 5.00 3.67 5.67 4.67
counters abilities 2.00 0.67 0.00 0.33
Dependant on toughness 18.00 31.00 13.00 11.00 19.00 10.00 20.67 13.33 17.00
Conditional 15.00 16.00 18.00 17.00 23.00 26.00 16.33 22.00 19.17
Multiple colored mana 12.00 18.00 19.00 9.00 17.00 21.00 16.33 15.67 16.00
Instant Speed 13.00 27.00 24.00 16.00 22.00 23.00 21.33 20.33 20.83
Upside 16.00 25.00 17.00 17.00 23.00 21.00 19.33 20.33 19.83
Can affect multiple 14.00 31.00 14.00 20.00 26.00 20.00 19.67 22.00 20.83
As-fan of counters/removal 2.76 2.92 2.41 2.34 2.69 2.39 2.70 2.48 2.59
% counters/removal 20.83 21.26 17.84 18.03 20.07 20.88 19.98 19.66 19.82
kills 1 toughness 4.00 15.00 2.00 5.00 4.00 3.00 7.00 4.00 5.50
kills 2 toughness (or less) 6.00 6.00 4.00 3.00 4.00 1.00 5.33 2.67 4.00
kills 3 toughness (or less) 3.00 3.00 1.00 1.00 4.00 3.00 2.33 2.67 2.50
kills 4 toughness (or less) 2.00 4.00 3.00 1.00 2.00 1.00 3.00 1.33 2.17
kills 5+  (or less) 2.00 3.00 3.00 1.00 3.00 2.00 2.67 2.00 2.33
Kills  power 4 or greater 1.00 1.00 1.00 0.67 0.33 0.50
Average CMC 3.36 3.27 3.17 3.09 3.49 3.09 3.27 3.23 3.25
Average Damage 2.53 2.16 3.08 2.09 2.76 2.80 2.59 2.55 2.57






Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

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