The numerous reprintings of Counterspell in Magic: The Gathering give us 13 unique art pieces to look at. Before we get started looking at real cards, I'd just like to point out that my perfect Counterspell would be this:
It could be done. We could make this with lenticular printing like one of those animal stickers everyone had on their science binder in middle school. Anyway, let's dig into these blue nope spells.
I'm going to kick things off with this edition in last place. There are a couple big things I have issues that make this my least favorite (although I really love some of this artist's other pieces). It's very dark all around, there's not really a point of high interest because the whole piece is pretty uniform in terms of value. It's not clear where the counterspell is. Is she casting it? Or is someone casting it on her? She doesn't have the flustered look of a wizard failing their spell check.
My other major critique is with the anatomy of the figure. The iliac crest of her pelvis and the bottom curve of her last rib are almost touching. Her torso is so shortened, she would be struggling to find room for all her organs and her lungs at the same time, not to mention the mobility problems that would arise from having a ribcage and pelvis that ground together when you bent to the side.
Finally, there's an unfortunate coincidence of edge with her closer arm and the frame. Cropping an image at a joint isn't nice, it feels too much like amputating the limb, but leaves us unsure about it. The effect is exacerbated in this case by the black elbow wraps that disappear into the background. Actually, if you squint, she starts to look a bit like a string puppet held together with invisible threads.
Next up is this. Huh.
It gets points for having a fun, directional composition. I enjoy the swoosh.
But what's going on with that left leg? They've got the longest shin I've ever seen. And they're also turning this white fluff spell back at it's owner with a very, "It's Wednesday my dudes" kind of attitude.
The background and ground layer are pretty uninspired. I don't get a sense of place or any sort of narrative value from the bare earth and… blueness. I had to zoom way in to discover that the dark blue part isn't a shadow cast by the white light spell, it's the inside of the robe getting blown up Marilyn Monroe-style. The only way to tell this is to ask yourself if that blue background is the sky or a wall and get close enough to see that the dark blue part supersedes the ground layer by a miniscule amount.
This one is kinda fun. The vambraces being almost the same as the skin tone made me think this figure had Popeye forearms for a second. I'm also skeptical that anyone would guess this is a Counterspell from the art alone. This person doesn't appear to be getting countered or casting anything, they're just vibing with the universe.
That said, I still like this. The artist is diving into their values with nice lights and darks. The stars and colorful "energies" give this a very retrowave aura, which I love. The armor looks like a spacesuit, with tubes, utility belt, and treaded boots, which only enhances the futuristic effect.
I'm a little lost on sense of place. The stone floor and darkness have a dungeon feel, like maybe this person is meditating because they got arrested, used up their lockpicks because they've been maxing two-handed instead, and decided to just take the experience loss and wait it out.
Here's a list of things that aren't bad on their own, but in combination make quite a punchable character: popped collars, forked beards, edgy skull-and-fang necklaces, single earrings, mullets. This man is probably compensating for a terrible personality. He is peacocking. Even the landscape is disappointed in this guy, look how depressed it is. Is anyone surprised his spell failed? Was it actually countered, or did he just say it was countered to cover up his incompetent wizardry? Anyway, I hate this guy, which is why I love this art. His confusion brings me an evil sort of glee.
I think the original image might have been done in colored pencil, which is not the easiest medium. It doesn't have the juicy saturation we get from newer MTG paintings done digitally, but it gets major points for a sense of humor and a complete background. So many Counterspells don't have a background.
We're also getting into what I think is the best part of Counterspell card art: expressions of bewilderment. Give me more puzzled and slightly sad wizards. They think they're better than us Gruul just because they can read? Pfft.
I call this one "Sad Osiris." Poor guy, at least a Counterspell isn't as bad as dismemberment. This one has really fun expression, the fizzled out spell is great, and the dramatic use of light and shadow is so baroque. This is Caravaggio's lighting.
Where it falls flat is a lack of temperature variation. This is something we see in MTG art from time to time where it seems like the artist might be a little too married to the card's color identity. Hence, the blue robe and the plain blue background. Sure, it's a blue card, but it doesn't have to be so chilly all the way through. Some of the best blue card arts have bits of hot orange, red, or pink in them, and those little points are what makes the blue all the bluer.
Without any variation in color temperature, this image has the same energy as the last slice of pizza that went cold sitting on the coffee table and now no one really wants it. It's ok though, everyone has that one friend who'll eat anything, and if you're that friend, you should put this version in your blue deck.
"I can't hold all these Orbeez."
But for real, something about this one is super endearing to me. Maybe it's the soft, pastel medium application. The subtle warm oranges and pinks blended in the background provide a welcome break from cold blues. The character design is really cute, with their little ear fins and hair bow. You love to see it.
There are two focal points here that keep your eye happily bouncing back and forth. The first is the figure's face. Your human brain naturally likes looking at faces, and it likes it even more when it's an area of high contrast. In this case, it's a light face framed in dark hair. Same with the other focal point, the hands. They are really bright framed in darkness. The artist was clever about the shadowed area under the hands, using that darkness to define the outline of the fingers rather than a straight-up outline.
These two are so similar I wanted to look at them as a pair. They have the same basic composition: full figure right in the middle of the frame surrounded by concentric blue energy blasts.
Ryan Yee's version has a more punchy energy than the other one. The figure is completely facing the viewer, and it's the darkest part of the image with the brightest light immediately surrounding it. There is no question of where the viewer is supposed to look. The figure is immediate and confrontational, and it feels pretty powerful. The hot pink background color is a really good, bold choice that makes the color composition here feel very rich and saturated. This is a Counterspell you slap down on the table when you're the only one playing blue and there's nothing your opponents can do about it.
Zack Stella's, in comparison, is not as energetic. The figure is faced away in a ¾ view, and the slight curves from the blue bolts make it seem like they're not moving as fast as the bolts in Yee's image. Again we have a really dark figure framed in bright light, so it's obvious where the focal point is. I think a major strength of this piece is the added horizon line. It's really subtle, but the little bit of orange provides a perfect temperature contrast against the cold blue main color. With just that tiny orange line, the artist has constructed an atmosphere of a lonely, cliff-faced coastline beneath a looming storm. It's amazing how much is communicated with so little.
The only reason these two aren't placed higher is that they don't seem to be countering anything or being countered. They look like they are casting blue lightning, which is cool, but not really what the card does.
This one is cool because it gets better the longer you look at it. It's really simple at first: red guy, blue background. But then you notice the blue spikes coming out of the right side of the frame and stopping them from casting their lightning spell, which is still on their fingertips. This is so awesome for the blue player. How many times have you smacked down a Counterspell while your opponent wasn't even done picking a target yet? Feels good, feels organic.
And then there's the extra compositional treat you get from those blue spikes. You don't see who's casting them, because you, the viewer, are casting them (as you cast the Counterspell). I go so frickin' wild for art that makes the viewer a participant, it is such a cool and classic trick.
Possibly the best and most famous example of this is Las Meninas, painted by Diego Velásquez in 1656. The compositional genius of this painting makes me cry in art historian. I won't go into too much detail because, frankly, there is way too much to talk about with this painting and other, more educated people have already written volumes about it, but the TL;DR is that Velásquez has put the viewer in the shoes of the King and/or Queen of Spain (you can see yourself in the mirror against the back wall), just like this Counterspell puts you in the shoes of a fantasy wizard.
Other things I love: artist was NOT afraid to slather a big bright red robe right on there, and also made a very detailed (if vanilla) background. It's not a whole landscape or anything, but a stone wall is still nicer to look at than "indistinct, bluish, shadowy smear." The expression on the figure is also superb. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy these befuddled wizards?
All the Amonkhet Invocations are pretty strong, and the Counterspell is no exception. One thing I love about these as a collection is their unified atmosphere. There's a solemn quietude to these cards, a sense of the ancient, even when something loud or energetic is happening in the scene. That's the sense I get here, and it really fits the storyline of Amonkhet.
This figure is protecting themselves from an attack, but they seem resigned about it. Maybe it's something in their gesture, a flick of their hand to summon a temporary shield against a destruction they know is inevitable either way. The background goes on for miles, making the figure even smaller and more alone against their enemy. Not only are they being attacked from above, but they are dwarfed by the pyramids behind them.
The lighting and textures here are decadent. The mist blanketing the ground is such a great opposition to the hail of fire and sparks from above. Play this Counterspell just when you're about to lose. Maybe it'll buy you a last-second victory against an opponent who feels very sure of themselves.
EMBRACE ORANGE. For real though, this card takes the complementary palette to the extreme. Orange is a bold color choice in most situations. It's vibrant and loud and shouts over other colors. That's why hunters and construction workers wear it. Due to the effects of atmospheric perspective and the natural colors of general stuff around us, it's possibly the loudest color on the planet.
Here's what I mean. If you go out somewhere with a view and look really far away, you'll notice that things in the distance lose contrast (so they're not as sharply defined by light and shadow), and they also get bluer.
Trees are green, right? The trees close up in this picture certainly are. But then, what about those forested hills way in the distance? They're not green anymore, they're blue. That's atmospheric perspective. There's a lot of atmosphere between you (the viewer) and those trees, and that atmosphere (literally air/water vapor/floating particles) is making those hills look blue.
So what about this Counterspell? Well, it's effectively banishing the atmosphere by being so loudly orange. It's a Counterspell right to the face. It's immediate, and there's no arguing with it. My advice would be to play this when you're sure your opponent can't counter your counter, because this orange slap demands confidence. Indulge in orange responsibly.
I don't know much about basketball, but this card is like the tallest player appearing out of nowhere to knock a slam dunk right out of the opponent's hand. Oh, and by extension, this is the perfect card for any Syracuse basketball fans. It's even got a hoop.
The top three Counterspells in my ranking all share one glaringly obvious similarity: embracing the complement. In the case of blue, the complement is orange. Complements are opposites on the color wheel, and putting them right next to each other enhances the intensity of both. Oranges look oranger, and blues look bluer when they are near their complement, so using a complementary palette is a great way to drive saturation. Counterspell is basically the quintessential blue card, and I love when its blue personality is played up with orange. It's a lot more sophisticated than just using as much blue as possible.
Jason Chan's Counterspell does this and also has a really dynamic composition. This is a carnival ride for your eye, which will land on Jace's hand/face area (focal point, light in dark) then travel in a loop following the swoosh of the wave. The billows of flame are a soft and warm place to land that sends you right back up the left side of the frame and into the focal point again. The variety of textures and temperatures here keeps the viewer engaged and moving around the image. This art is also very clearly depicting a counterspell. Jace is literally turning a spell around with his own spell.
It's been a while since we've seen my buddy, Armature of the Rectangle, but I thought it was worth breaking out to have a look at the layout of this piece. See how the three major elements (fire, water, Jace) all directly follow major divisions? Good math make brain happy.
Lastly, and I'm not sure if this was intentional, but there's a really fun subliminal element to this composition echoing Jace's symbol. In the set symbol for his signature spellbook and usually on his clothes, you see something that is basically a dot within a circle. This picture is a dot within a circle.
This lovely art has it all. The colors, the textures, the variation in temperature and value contrast. The serene and quiet balance achieved in symmetry and circles without banishing energy. This card matches what I think of blue, a color that is almost smug in its playstyle. Where red shouts and green stomps, blue just says, "Nah," and there's nothing to be done about it. As a diehard Gruul player, this is a Counterspell I would be happy to be served. It's so good to look at, I honestly wouldn't even be mad.
Balance is found in a figure so perfectly centered in the ½ division it's almost sorcery. The ratio of orange to blue is superb. We know the orange has a role to play, but blue is the main event. It's not as over the top as the #2 Counterspell because it's got nothing to prove. This Counterspell is secure. It has priorities and time management skills.
Play this Counterspell if you're trying your best and doing better today than yesterday. Or even if you're not doing great, but just need a reminder that you'll get there. Other folks who should consider this printing are Virgos and Capricorns.