Is D&D Shadow Banning Counterspell?

No. Well, not really.

What is going on?

During the D&D Celebration 2021’s “Ask the Sage Live” and “Future of D&D” panels, D&D Principal Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford announced that there are changes to monster stat blocks coming in future releases–including the new Monsters of the Multiverse book, which contains 250+ monster stat blocks (many aggregated and reimagined from other hardcovers).

We can already see some of these changes in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight (WBW). D&DBeyond subscribers are experiencing changes as updates to older content reprinted in WBW, even if they didn’t buy the new feywild adventure.

So, what’s happening?

“We have made a number of changes, not only in the The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, but in a number of upcoming books in how spellcasting appears in most monsters. Really with an eye towards improving the DM’s play experience…

“Many of our spellcasting monsters are simply too complicated at the table. What we’re doing–and you’re going to see this as an evolution over a number of books over the next year–is us coming up with new ways to keep spellcasting monsters and NPCs exciting, still spellcastery, but in a way that is much easier for a DM to manage.

“One of the ways we’re going that is making it so that spellcasting monsters don’t rely on the DM picking the right spells in a wall of spell choices to make that monster as dangerous as it’s supposed to be.”

D&D Principal Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford

Stat blocks are getting a few things:

  1. Rebalancing to match their CR;
  2. Style changes;
  3. New features.

All of these dovetail into each other in some way. The general theme is to make it easier for DMs to run a monster by moving the key information into the block, instead of making the DM look elsewhere.

It seems a key feature of the redesign to build enough flavorful features into the stat block to fuel a meaningful encounter, while providing other encounter-relevant options to DMs looking to serve a deeper experience.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

New Signature Features

Here’s the stat block WotC rolled out to showcase the new style (old/new):

The shiny new toy in this stat block is the Holy Fire feature. Since it’s not a spell, it’s technically uncounterable. Since it occupies a prominent place in the stat block and integrates with the War Priest’s multiattack, it crowds out the spell list in the action economy.

That’s not the only place where the signature feature takes space. Note the spell list has been trimmed to make text space for this signature feature. Let’s talk about that.

Trimmed Spells

In some cases, spell options are removed if they aren’t feasible to use in an encounter:

Korred comparison images from u/Ovalusc

While the Korred didn’t receive any new features, the stat block is reorganized with an emphasis on action economy. The Korred also received a Hit Die nerf (-1d6) and lost the limited conjure elemental spell which could be used to spawn a small army, in the hands of a clever player.

Since the Command Hair feature already exists to drive the flavor the the encounter, nothing is added, suggesting the other changes were made to ensure the Korred plays more in line with its Challenge Rating (CR). But also…

Removing conjure elemental aligns with WotC’s stated goal of trimming stat block features to those that will be relevant in the immediate encounter. Conjure elementals has a casting time of 1 minute. So, it’s not much use in combat. Spells used in preparation should be found in other DM guidance–whether that’s a tactics discussion in your preferred monster manual, or specific guidance in an adventure. Don’t make me do homework to realize the Korred should be found in a room with a Galeb Duhr and two animated boulders. Just put them there!

What Does This Have to Do With Counterspell?

If a monster uses a magical feature, it’s not a spell, and it can’t be countered.

Some folks look at these changes and do the simple arithmetic:

+ new magic features

– old spells

More magic features and fewer spells means that counterspell is less viable. Right?

Well, not necessarily.

Uncounterable Magic Features

There’s a fair concern that new “core” features becoming the highlight of every creature’s narrative are uncounterable. But, the potential solutions to this are many. Mostly, if a monster has a feature that is supposed to emulate a spell (and can therefore be counterspelled), it should simply say so (and it does).

Now, would such tech be diligently implemented? And whose standard it should follow? Some folks would be happy for more spells to be converted to magic features. Some folks would prefer if existing magic features were converted to counterable spells. Pleasing everyone is an impossible task, but setting expectations with clear communication can go a long way to establishing a standard.

Trimming Spell Lists

If what they’re trimming from spell lists is stuff that wasn’t viable in battle, then your counterspell didn’t become useless. You weren’t going to counterspell a conjure elementals that happened a minute before you rolled initiative anyhow.

Now, perhaps this isn’t the case. Perhaps impactful combat spells are being trimmed. Trimming a bloated spell list doesn’t mean that your counterspell is useless. It just means that it will be used on a different spell. A caster is still limited by the same action economy of everyone else. Since you technically don’t know what you’re counterspelling until you cast it, a tighter spell list actually increases the odds that you’re nixing something more impactful.

Counterspell is Bad, Shadowbanning is Worse

Counterspell has issues. Conceptually, and specifically as implemented in 5e.

If D&D is indeed attempting to legislate counterspell out of the game by design technicality, that’s a bad situation for players.

If you have a disruptive mechanic, your first solution should be to remove the mechanic. Leaving in a mechanic that doesn’t work with other parts of the game creates a “trap” option that results in players wasting precious character resources.

If the disruptive mechanic still provides enough value for some styles of play, game managers should be informed of how it can affect their game, be permitted to ban it, and advised how to manage it. This type of guidance is right at home in a sidebar or the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

I’m not convinced counterspell is being “shadowbanned.” However, if monsters are specifically being redesigned so that 5th edition’s counterspell cannot affect their signature features, that may signal a change to the counterspell mechanics in 2024e.

Looking to the Future

How will monster stat blocks be changed? How will new styles be implemented? Will signature features swallow spells?

The books in the Rules Expansion Gift Set will serve as a litmus test for stat block changes to be updated for D&D’s 2024 edition. The designers say they’re listening. Let us know what you think about the latest and future changes in the comments below (please be kind).

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4 thoughts on “Is D&D Shadow Banning Counterspell?

  1. My crew have made Counterspell a 3/day ability the current counterspellers get at 6th level. And it always requires a caster vs caster rolloff, 50/50 chance if evenly matched. this makes it an extra ability (doesn’t cost resources), but also an active ability that might not work – thus it is an “interesting choice” that sometimes you’ll try and sometimes you won’t, and you know ahead of time that Sauron is *probably* going to beat you, Ron Weasley…. but maybe you try anyway!

    As such, counterspell is no longer a “problem” at our table, and I would be frustrated to see it “shadowbanned”. If 5e doesn’t like the base rule, kill it uniformly, I agree.

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  2. “a tighter spell list actually increases the odds that you’re nixing something more impactful.”

    This is a really good point, and perhaps the best possible response to the concerns about the new “spell-like” actions. Based on these images, the War Priest’s two non-counterspellable “spells” are the equivalents of Sacred Flame and Healing Word. Would a player ever want to counterspell these spells? I’m going to say generally no, with the possible exception of a healing word that bounces a dying NPC back up (rare when 0 HP = death for most NPCs.) And if the DM announces what spells NPCs are casting, the players won’t even bother. So making these actions unavailable to counterspell makes counterspell potentially more useful and exciting, not less.

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    1. I don’t know about you, but I counterspell anything the enemy spellcaster casts. They aren’t casting for my health, after all… not letting them do the thing is better for the party. I’ve never gotten to a situation where the enemy caster didn’t have better things to do than just cantrip-bait me. I’ve even been happy finding out I counterspelled Misty Step or Cure Wounds! The issue, though, remains – Counterspell as it is implemented leads to “unfun”… I spend my chance to do something cool/fun to take away your chance to do something cool/fun = we both lose, no matter how tactically sound the decision is!

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