A couple of months ago, I ran a Twitter poll asking ‘Which of these is the most annoying spell in 5e D&D?’ The options I gave were banishment, counterspell, and forcecage, with a fourth option for ‘something else’. It is striking that out of 66 votes, more than half were for counterspell. I can’t say I’m surprised.
D&D is a game about magic and wonder. Counterspell has the potential to kill both. At face value, it stops players being able to do what they want to do, and in a really unimaginative way. No flavour, no fantasy, just a big, fat ‘nope’. Can we do better?
In this article, I am going to take a closer look at counterspell: how it works, what its limitations are, and how to make it more fun. I may follow this up with a series on other problem spells. If you have any spells you would like me to cover, let me know in the comments below.
Since I’m going to keep referring to the spell over the course of this article, I’m sharing below its description from D&D Beyond.
Let’s get down to detail.
1. You only have one reaction per turn
So, if you cast counterspell, you can’t do the following things until you next turn:
- make opportunity attacks
- complete a readied action
- cast another spell with a casting time of 1 reaction, such as shield, feather fall, or, of course, counterspell.
You also can’t use a reaction if you are surprised (PH 189).
2. Counterspell is not a long-range spell
There are more than 80 spells in the Player’s Handbook that can be cast outside its range, and another 50 or so in sources like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. That’s somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of all the spells in the game. Where possible, long-range spellcasters should try to place themselves 65 ft or farther from an enemy who can cast counterspell.
3. It uses up spell slots
It’s not a cantrip. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out. When a wizard gains access to counterspell at 5th level, they can only cast it twice a day. That means burning a spell slot that could have been used for fireball, haste, or lightning bolt instead. The same goes for sorcerers and warlocks. Even at 20th level, a wizard only has three 3rd-level spell slots, and as spellcasters go into higher levels, the spells they need to counterspell get increasingly higher level themselves. Want to counterspell that 7th-level forcecage? That will cost you a 7th-level counterspell – and you only have one 7th-level slot. Difficult decisions.
If players don‘t seem to care about burning through spell slots, perhaps you have another problem: the five-minute adventuring day. That‘s a whole other article! Essentially, though, if players feel they can take a rest after every encounter or two, you‘re going to have issues with game balance, especially with spellcasters.
4. You must see a creature casting a spell
There are also numerous ways to get round this:
- An invisible spellcaster cannot be seen.
- A blinded spellcaster cannot see.
- Areas that are heavily obscured, or in darkness, can have the same effect.
- If you don’t have line of sight – for example, when the caster is being a wall – you can’t counterspell.
- A sorcerer of 2nd level or higher can spend a sorcery point to cast a spell without somatic or verbal components; in such instances, it would be impossible for anyone to perceive the spell being cast unless it had a material component.
- Another example: many monsters, such as mind flayers, celestials, and several fiends, can cast spells without needing components. These spells, too, cannot be counterspelled.
5. The interrupted action is ‘cast a spell’
So, just to be clear, you can’t counterspell a paladin’s divine smite or a druid’s wild shape or a cleric’s turn undead ability because none of these things involve casting a spell. You also can’t counterspell a dragon’s breath weapon, a beholder’s eye rays, or a medusa’s petrifying gaze for the same reason.
Furthermore, if you are using a magic item, this is not ‘casting a spell’ unless the item’s description specifically says so. A spell scroll involves casting a spell, so its effects can be counterspelled as normal. Ditto a wand of fireballs. But potions generally can’t be counterspelled and neither can items like a ring of invisibility or a javelin of lightning because you are not casting a spell when you use them.
6. It only succeeds automatically on low-level spells
If the spell you are trying to counterspell is of 4th level or higher, you must either make an ability check using your spellcaster ability or you need to use a spell slot of 4th level or higher. This presents two follow up questions, however:
- Does the creature casting counterspell know what spell they are interrupting?
- Do they know what level the spell is being cast at?
The rules as written are unclear on both points. However, if we look at what game designers have said on the matter, it is quite clear that . . .
7. Counterspell is meant to be a gamble
Here’s what Jeremy Crawford says:
Of course, most people (including Critical Role’s Matt Mercer) do not play like this. Even Jeremy Crawford has his own house rule, which is this: if a spell is on your class’s spell list, you can identify it when you perceive it being cast. This seems fair. Note that you still can’t identify what level the spell is being cast at. For example, if Acererak the lich casts disintegrate using a 9th-level spell slot, the party wizards casting counterspell would only know that Acererak is casting disintegrate, a 6th-level spell. If the same wizard then chose to use a 6th-level spell slot to cast counterspell, they would still need to roll an ability check as normal.
(As an aside, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything complicates matters further by introducing a new action called ‘identify a spell’ (XGE 85). Using this variant, a character can use their reaction to identify a spell as it’s being cast if they succeed on an Intelligence (Arcana) check. Since casting counterspell is itself a reaction, this variant rule would mean it is almost impossible to identify which spell you are attempting to counterspell. Some DMs might allow a second character to use their reaction to identify the spell and then call out to the counterspeller what the spell is . . . but it’s technically the DM’s decision whether this is allowed, and at this stage, the game is grinding to a halt. Full disclosure: I don’t use the XGE rule, and I wouldn’t recommend it.)
In fact, you can even counterspell while you are casting another spell. As an example, if Acererak casts chain lightning and the party wizard tries to counterspell it, Acererak can use a reaction to counterspell the wizard’s counterspell, leaving him free to cast chain lightning as before.
9. Counterspell doesn’t have to be flavourless
Mike Shea has a great post on this over at Sly Flourish. He evokes the wizard duels in the Harry Potter films:
Remember when their wands connect and bolts of green and red flame burst around dripping molten arcane energy onto the ground? That’s counterspell. When Voldemort creates a huge firestorm, and Dumbledore wraps it in a huge ball of water – counterspell. When Voldemort throws a billion shards of glass at Potter, and they smash against a shield and turn to sand – counterspell. When Harry’s parents save him from Voldemort’s power word kill and beams of multi-spectral light crash into one another – counterspell.
As DMs, this can be a great opportunity to offer inspiration for cool descriptions. As Shea says, ‘Counterspell is the opposite reaction to any spell a caster can cast, and it should be described as such. The more powerful the spell being countered, the more powerful the reaction should be.’
Ultimately, it’s your game, your table, your rules. If you want to nerf counterspell, or even ban it completely, you are free to. However, I would cautiously propose that it’s not as broken as people think, and played right, can be one of the most enjoyable spells in the game.
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