A Defense of Arcane Denial in cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • January 4, 2023

Arcane Denial by Xi Zhang

Arcane Denial deserves a second chance in cEDH. While at first glance it may appear to be a counterspell that replaces itself at the cost of giving an opponent card advantage, Arcane Denial is actually an incredibly deceptive and powerful card worthy of consideration for any blue deck. Commander is a multiplayer format, after all, so it's important that we put aside our reservations regarding giving opponents resources and instead look at a broader picture: what is the difference in impact between giving resources to one opponent from amongst three versus giving resources to the only other player at the table? Most importantly, how does this stack up against the replacement upside which Arcane Denial can offer?

Card advantage in cEDH is a tricky thing to understand, especially for those new to the format, and in order to understand why I'm a big advocate for playing Arcane Denial, it's first important to get a solid footing on how parity, relative card advantage, and absolute advantage operate, so, let's get into it.

First off, a basic understanding of what I'll be counting as the "cards" in our card advantage calculation. Permanents on board, cards in hand, and cards castable from exile or in the Command Zone all count. Those are the four zones that matter for the sake of the card advantage discussion (if you want to be really technical about it, cards on the stack could theoretically count as well, but that's not so significant a part of the calculus as to require deep discussion), but for the sake of this article we'll be primarily focusing on cards in hand.

The Parity Breakdown

Moving from this, we can next discuss the difference between relative and absolute parity, as well as relative and absolute card advantage. Parity is pretty simple: it refers to when neither advantage nor disadvantage exists, i.e., an equilibrium of resources is in place. This is relative in the case of equilibrium between a select few players in the game, or absolute when in place between all players. Relative card advantage and absolute card advantage reflect the same definition, albeit in a state out of equilibrium. While simple enough in theory, this difference between relative and absolute is critical in understanding Commander gameplay.

This is where the first snag against absolute card advantage as a reliable metric comes into play: in EDH, the game always begins with you in a position of absolute card disadvantage. Regardless of whether or not any individual player is using a Partner, a Companion, or both, the greatest number of cards at your disposal beginning at turn zero - the point when card parity should theoretically be at its maximum - is capped at ten (two Partner Commanders, a Companion, and seven cards in hand), whereas the sum amount of resources between the three opponents you'll be facing down is anywhere from twenty-four to thirty. At the absolute best, not accounting for mulligans, the closest to bridging the resource gap which can be anticipated when starting an EDH game is your ten cards against your opponents' collective twenty-four. This means that, while cEDH games do traditionally start somewhere between relative and absolute parity, they also start with each player in a position of absolute card disadvantage.

That said, it is still certainly possible to reach a position of absolute card advantage, although such a state is usually a winning one as opposed to simply a good one when it comes to cEDH. This is because, given the difficulty in attaining it, reaching absolute card advantage is representative of a monumentous feat. Casting Ad Nauseam, going infinite with Urza or Thrasios; all of these usually end the game. As such, while absolute card advantage is possible, it is not realistic. This means that the terms of the game are best evaluated from the transitory approach of maintaining relative advantage and parity while seeking absolute advantage.

It is because of this transitory approach that board wipes are so ubiquitous and important in Commander as a whole, as opposed to traditional single-spot removal. I shouldn't have to explain how valuable cards like Cyclonic Rift and Toxic Deluge are. While these sweepers don't often establish absolute advantage (well, Cyclonic Rift begs to differ...), they do frequently maximize the possibility for relative card advantage - putting you ahead of each opponent individually, albeit not necessarily collectively.

Counterspell Erosion

Moving to the world of counterspells, these are almost always one-for-one, which maintain relative parity with an individual opponent, but consistently erode relative advantage against the other two players. Beyond this inherent flaw, some of the best counterspells out there are actually two-for-ones (Force of Will, Force of Negation, etc.), costing a card to pitch as well as the counterspell itself. These are played out of necessity, not value.

No, I'm not sorry.

I'm not saying this to diminish the importance of counterspells in cEDH; my absolute favourite deck to play is Grand Arbiter Augustin IV TurboStax, so I've certainly cast my fair share of Force of Wills and Dovin's Vetos, but it's important to understand that while casting removal frequently brings you closer to relative parity or even advantage, casting a counterspell is almost always representative of an advantage loss. This is where Arcane Denial comes into play.

The example math for casting a counterspell during seven-card absolute parity is, strictly with respect to hand sizes, frequently as follows: the controller of the countered spell goes from seven to six, the caster of the counterspell goes from seven to six, and the other two players remain unchanged. In effect, what was absolute parity has been reduced to relative parity with only a third of the total opponents, and now a situation of relative card disadvantage exists between the counterer and the two untargeted players.

The Math of Arcane Denial

The example math for casting Arcane Denial is uniquely different. At the beginning of the next turn, the original 6-6-7-7 status has changed to an 8-7-7-7 status. Parity exists with twice as many opponents and relative card disadvantage with half. While each opponent now has access to at least as many resources as the Arcane Denial-caster, the relative distribution of those resources is now much more in your favor.

Does this mean I would go readily replacing Force of Wills with Arcane Denial? Of course not. However, it does mean that Arcane Denial offers something which few other counterspells can claim to do: it broadly maintains relative parity. This has been a greatly oversimplified example, as the majority of the time Arcane Denial will not be cast when absolute parity exists, but regardless of the situation in which it is cast, one thing is clear: Arcane Denial is a rare example1 of a parity-stable counterspell.

Beyond Parity

Moving beyond relative advantage and the allure of parity, it's worth realising that Arcane Denial is rare among counterpells: it actually counters everything. It doesn't have timing concerns, like Force of Negation or Flusterstorm, it doesn't have specific conditions, like Mindbreak Trap, and it doesn't have the noncreature stipulation that so many of the other ones do. It counters whatever you throw it at.

In a meta overrun by the likes of Winota, Dockside Extortionist, and a growing host of high-value creatures, a versatile counterspell that can truly answer anything is certainly worth considering. Sure, it costs two mana and that puts it in the same category as Mana Drain and Delay, but I'd argue the parity-breaking aspect of Arcane Denial is as good if not better than the mana boost or delay effect respectively.

A Brief Wrap-Up

Arcane Denial is an excellent example of a deceptively good card which can be easily misevaluated at first glance. Whether it's serving its role as an affordably costed counterspell defending your own victory or denying an opponent theirs, the use-case for Arcane Denial is certainly a strong one, and I highly recommend you give it a try. The card has fallen out of decklists over the last few years and - although opponents may be drawing less cards because of this - the pursuit of card advantage has certainly suffered as a result. It is flexibly costed, replaces itself, and does an excellent job countering threats of all kinds. That being said, what truly makes Arcane Denial unique is its ability to maintain parity, something which never fails to make me excited when I see it in my opening hand.

What do you think? Will you stick with the more narrow, one-mana responses? Or are you willing to reevaluate the two-mana, catch-all, cantripping counterspell?

Read more from Harvey McGuinness on MTGStocks.


  1. While not strictly a counterspell, per se, Veil of Summer is another.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.