I'm playing an Abjuration wizard in 5e, and am currently level 4. Looking ahead to the 3rd level spell list, I come across the spell I've been waiting for: Counterspell.

And then, reading the rules, I find that it's potentially extremely broken.

In order for me to counter a spell of a higher level than the one I cast the spell, all I need to do is succeed on a spellcasting check equal to 10+the spell I'm countering.

At level 4, my bonus is +6. Next level it will be +7. That means that to counter a level 9 spell, I only need to get a 12 or higher- 40% chance of success.

Is that balanced? And if so, why?

  • 18
    \$\begingroup\$ How do you get +6? You don't apply proficiency to this check. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 21:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Abjuration wizards do \$\endgroup\$
    – emery.noel
    Commented Apr 16, 2019 at 19:50
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ @emery.noel: Though not until 10th level. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 25, 2019 at 3:54

8 Answers 8


It's at the very least more fair than you think it is.

The check for the counterspell is an ability check of the type of your spell casting stat.

This means that the maximum bonus a character can get (unless they are a bard with Jack of All Trades), is +5. Bards being the rare exception get half proficiency to all checks they aren't proficient in already and thus can get up to +8 at 17th level.

Since you're at least 5th level, we can assume your casting stat is between 18 and 20 (it may be 16 if you took a feat or MCed a couple of levels, and it might be 14 if other circumstances are true), so we'll use 18 here.

This means that the modifier to the check is +4, meaning that to counter a 9th level spell, you need to roll at least a 15 meaning only a 30% chance of success. Sure this sounds like a lot, but in reality, a 30% chance isn't all that much.

The abjurer, at L10 does have a feature that will add their full proficiency to counterspell checks. However, since this is a pretty significant class feature (This is the same level the evocation wiz gets to add their int to all their damage), it's not out of line by any stretch.

Addendum: Though this isn't part of your question, this is a particularly nasty spell for an NPC to use on a group of PCs, and one that a DM should consider with caution. Counterspelling a fireball is fine, counterspelling the party's last-minute emergency teleport that was meant to prevent a TPK probably isn't. (HT to Miniman and BESW)

  • 29
    \$\begingroup\$ On top of all the good points made in this and other answers, consider also that Counterspell does nothing against a horde of angry orcs. It does one very specific thing, and it does that thing well, but it's just dead weight in your prepared spells list for any other situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Steve-O
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that you can upcast Counterspell to remove any need for a check. \$\endgroup\$
    – TVann
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also consider, that per Jeremy Crawford, it takes an action to determine the spell being cast - thus you will not know the type of spell you are counterspelling unless a partner in the party tells you before you cast it (sageadvice.eu/2017/12/06/…) \$\endgroup\$
    – Praxiteles
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 23:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk You can't cast two non-cantrip spells on your turn, even if one is a reaction. \$\endgroup\$
    – Axoren
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 3:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Axoren That is not what the rules say. The rule is that if you cast a spell as a bonus action, you cannot cast another spell other than a cantrip as an action. So if you cast a bonus action spell, you cannot cast a spell as a reaction; if you cast an action spell, you can cast a spell as a reaction. You might describe a common houserule. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 16:04

As waxeagle has pointed out, the check for the counterspell is an ability check of the type of your spell casting stat, without proficiency.

And as Neil Slater pointed out, you need to have the spell prepared and your reaction available.

And as both pointed out, if you're using a lower slot level than the spell you are trying to counter, you have a moderately high risk of failing and wasting the slot all together.

One more point: the range of counterspell is only 60 feet. That's a lot of spells that can target you before you're close enough to counter them. It also means the Wizard has to get a little closer to the action than she might otherwise prefer.


If you are on the receiving end of a 9th-level spell, and feeling lucky, then yes you could use a 3rd-to-8th-level slot to have a 35% chance (assuming 20 casting stat by that level) of neutralising the spell, and coming out ahead on trading spell slots.

But you might want to consider the impact of being hit by that 9th level spell for you and your team before taking even a moderate risk of failure.

Another more minor balancing effect is that you need Counterspell prepared, and your Reaction available. This uses a slot to ready you for spell defence, and must be traded with some other use for the slot that could give you a more active ability. Now, I'd take that if I knew I was facing many opponents with spells, but whether or not it was useful on every adventure I could not say.

In fact, I would suggest the spell needs to be very good at performing its job (counterspelling) before it balances out against its single purpose. In several years of playing AD&D and 3E, both of which gave access to counterspell effects, I think I may have seen Dispel Magic used to counter a spell as it was cast only 2 times, and possibly just once using 3E's mechanics (which in theory made it easier to counter a specific spell in terms of slot use, but required use of fiddly Ready-an-Action mechanics). So it is a reasonable goal IMO to make counterspell easier than in those versions.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Counterspelling was extremely difficult in 3e, quite definitely not easier than it is now. And having a 35% chance of not getting hit by the effect of a 9th level spell is absolutely huge when you consider the impact of 9th level spells. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 11:23
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman: Counterspelling using Dispel Magic was relatively easy. I agree not easier than it is now, but then that is what I am getting at - it needs to be easier, because it wasn't happening under the old rules. Will try to make that clearer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 11:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman: For impact, we are comparing 0% (no counterspell used), 35% (3rd-level slot used) or 100% (9th level slot used). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 11:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ In all fairness the best ways to counter spells in 3e didn't use Counterspell. Sure, it worked, and I saw it used more than you did. But you could ready more or less the same action, and because readied actions happened before the event they reacted to, instead counter with the same spell (automatic), counter with a spell that would break line of effect (automatically works, plus you get the effect of your interposing spell whether it's resilient sphere or a wall), or even counter with a damaging spell or just a ranged or melee attack (you get your damage in and don't need magic). \$\endgroup\$
    – mneme
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 16:23

To put things into perspective, if a character goes about dodging attacks that character can avoid a whole range of actions from multiple opponents, as opposed to spending a reaction and a spell slot to counter one caster's action.

You have to see the caster casting and that caster must be within 60 feet of you. As a consequence it's utterly useless against:

  • Invisible/hidden casters
  • Spells that have already been cast and might or might not require concentration
  • Anything outside the 60'

Furthermore, there are some pretty detrimental spells of level 2 and lower. Even a cantrip, such as Shocking Grasp (that denies the target reactions on a subsequent turn), can force a Counterspell. If a counterspeller wishes to avoid the effects then he/she would have to expend a 3rd level slot. In the OP's case, the wizard will be lvl5, with only 2 3rd level slots available.

Is Counterspell a strong option against spellcasters? Yes. Focusing on counterspelling will indeed shut the opposing caster down… as well as use up your spell slots pretty quickly. Can Counterspell cause a TPK if used at the right moment? Yes. But so can Mage Hand used in the right moment.

If unfair is measured by being potent in certain situations a plethora of other spells and character options qualify as well. Blur and rogues come to mind.


It is almost certainly not a fair spell, in the right scenario, and when used cleverly.

I have reduced a boss encounter to a trivial difficulty using this spell. The boss in question was a 9th-level spell caster, who tried to get both a 7th- and a 9th- level spell off against a bunch of level 7 PCs.

With 20 Cha, advantage on the check, the Lucky feat, and Bend Luck at the ready should I need any of them, I was rather secure in the knowledge that I could counter any spell the mage threw at us.

In fact, the average roll for the particular combination of abilities above gives an average of 23 to the roll, and a 92% chance to roll a 12 before modifiers. To counter a 9th-level spell this way, my odds are 85%: good enough for me to risk it. Furthermore, Subtle Spell on that Counterspell also prevented the opposing mage from countering my counterspell, as @keithcurtis warns might be possible.

Counterspell uses better action economy

By using your reaction to deny them their action, you are using the action economy more efficiently than the monsters. And any advantage in using the action economy is huge in this edition. That is why Quickened Spell and Twinned Spell are so good. And this is another reason why Counterspell is unfair.

What I lost

That said, this character was weak in many other things and could not dole out massive damage. He was not physically resilient in terms of HP. He was built to stop mages from harming him, but he couldn't kill them. He had to rely on his party for that.

Counterspell also eats your reaction. So in an airborne battle, any round you use Counterspell is also a round you can't use Feather Fall. In a battle with melee components, you can't use Shield if you're keeping your Counterspell at the ready. As a wizard, you also have access to Absorb Elements, so in a battle where more elemental themed magics are used, you can't Counterspell and have protection against the elements in the same round.

Finally, most of the time, they wouldn't be dealing with magic users. And so Counterspell was mostly unused. Instead, it took up space in my spells known (and for your abjuration wizard, your prepared spells).

Given all these trade offs for the benefits, I'd say Counterspell can be considererd a fair spell.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Small note, Bend Luck also requires a reaction to use, so you wouldn't be able to use that to help with your Counterspell check. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alaric
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 14:29

Overlooked Boons to Counter Spell

You can buff your counter spellers with Guidance or Enhance Ability to give a 1d4 and/or advantage to the roll. Not sure if people missed that.

It is worth considering tagging your counter speller with guidance before going against the BBEG. And, if your diplomatic approach failed hold on to that Enhance Ability, it might shutdown a high end spell or more.

Also mentioned in thread: sorcerer subtle spell to negate most other counter spellers.

And, Bardic Impetration both lore use and common.

Not sure if there are more, maybe an item or two that will help you be that guy that just wont let the DM use the casters with their limited spell list.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A luckstone also helps (+1 bonus to ability checks and saving throws). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 3:32

Counterspell is indeed a powerful defensive spell, for the reasons outlined in the previous answers. What you also need to consider is that although you might have Counterspell memorized, there is nothing that prevents an attacker from also having Counterspell memorized. In fact, I would argue that any spellcaster capable of casting a 9th level spell should keep a Counterspell in reserve for just this contingency.

If there is only one spellcaster per side, then having that backup counterspell virtually guarantees that you will get your high level spell off, since you can cast it with as high a level of a slot as you can afford.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you can use your reaction on your own turn. Therefore, if you cast a spell, then someone else uses their reaction to cast Counterspell, you can't then use your reaction to cast Counterspell to counter their Counterspell as you seem to be suggesting. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lumenbeing
    Commented Aug 17, 2016 at 8:58
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ From the PHB: Order of Combat: Reactions: "A reaction is an instant response to a trigger of some kind, which can occur on your turn or on someone else’s" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is borne out in the Sage Advice Compendium with exactly this example: "Can you also cast a reaction spell on your turn? You sure can! Here’s a common way for it to happen: Cornelius the wizard is casting fireball on his turn, and his foe casts counterspell on him. Cornelius has counterspell prepared, so he uses his reaction to cast it and break his foe’s counterspell before it can stop fireball." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 22:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a known, cheap gimmick to counterspell a counterspell used to counter your spell, or vice versa. The only way to prevent this is for a sorcerer to use Subtle Spell, as this makes the counterspell indetectable, thus, cannot be counterspelled. Subtle Spell can also make Verbal-Somatic Only spells uncounterable on the same premise: A spell with no components is undetectable, thus, can not be a trigger for a reaction. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zourin
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 18:30

Counterspell is arguably of questionable fairness in regular play (depending on how your DM rules spell-identification) if not for the reason you suspect. While you can make an ability check to counter a spell higher than 3rd level, you can also simply cast Counterspell at a higher level to avoid making any check. If your DM does not allow someone to identify a spell being cast before the Counterspell can be used, it becomes much more fair, however (thanks to Adam for pointing out this limitation in the comments). If your DM allows you to freely identify spells as they are cast, and potentially even their level (some do, some don't), then read on.

Here's the wording:

At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the interrupted spell has no effect if its level is less than or equal to the level of the spell slot you used.

In other words, if you are fighting an enemy spellcaster and you have a spell slot of the same level, your reaction is enough to shut down the action economy. Your regular turn may still be spent on casting a spell, and more importantly, your allies' turns may be spent doing whatever they want.

Meanwhile, the enemy caster can take no actions, because any action is immediately countered without any roll necessary. The only limitation is that the counterspelling caster must be within 60 feet, but in most encounters, that will undoubtedly be the case. And it will be very difficult for the enemy caster to gain that distance after combat begins without using any magic (since it would be countered).

It's easy to see that the only viable defense for a caster is for them to use Counterspell to counter your counter, so to speak. And if the only reliable, viable method for a spellcaster to succeed at literally anything, is to "fight fire with fire", then it does in fact reveal a balance issue. An arms-race of counterspells, if you will.

Of course the easiest solution is simply to house-rule away the upcasting section of the spell, but strictly by RAW, I'm afraid there's not really much you can do about it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your arms race analogy is true to an extent, however counterspell is cast before the effect of the spell takes place. There is no predefined way to tell what spell is being cast before the spell takes effect, and no predefined way to tell what level the spell is being cast at either. So, the only way to be sure, would be to upcast counterspell just to be safe. But, if your upcast isn't enough to end the spell outright, you have to make the same check as if you had used a 3rd level slot; effectively wasting the higher level spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 14:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adam, Hmm, that's a good point that I hadn't considered. I'll make a note of it. \$\endgroup\$
    – TVann
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 15:38

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