The evil demon begins casting. Without knowing what they’re doing, you already know it’s bad. You cast counterspell to try and stave it off. But, before you and your friends can celebrate too much, one of the demon’s henchmen uses their reaction to cast counterspell. Is that even possible? We explain why it is, and how counterspell works, below.
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How Counterspell Works
Before we break down counterspelling a counterspell, let’s explore the spell itself. It takes a reaction, and the spell’s text reads You attempt to interrupt a creature in the process of casting a spell. If the creature is casting a spell of 3rd level or lower, its spell fails and has no effect. If it is casting a spell of 4th level or higher, make an ability check using your spellcasting ability. The DC equals 10 + the spell’s level. On a success, the creature’s spell fails and has no effect.
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. It requires verbal components, and the caster must see a creature within 60 feet of them casting a spell. It’s available on the Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard spell lists. The spell is automatically prepared daily for Oath of Redemption and Oath of the Watchers Paladins.
It’s also worth noting that some class features, magical items, and other things can affect your counterspell ability. For example, the Bard’s Jack of All Trades feature lets you add half of your proficiency bonus (rounded down) to any check you make that doesn’t already include your proficiency bonus. As we stated above, if you’re counterspelling something higher than the spell slot level you used to cast, you must make a spellcasting check. Jack of All Trades lets you add half your proficiency bonus to that check.
Another thing that affects counterspell is the Sorcerer’s Metamagic option Subtle Spell. Subtle Spell allows a spellcaster to cast a spell without using verbal or somatic components. In essence, unless they need to consume material components, it becomes impossible for anyone around them to tell that they are casting a spell. Since counterspell requires you to see someone casting to trigger the reaction, Subtle Spells cannot be counterspelled.
Battle of the Counterspells
This means that if you’re in the process of using your action to cast a spell and an enemy casts counterspell, you can immediately use your reaction to counterspell their counterspell, in an attempt to succeed on the spell you were casting as your action. Theoretically, there could be as many combatants casting counterspells as you want, but most DMs will limit things to curb the chaos.
So, what happens in this kind of situation?
As the spell’s text explains, under normal circumstances, you either frustrate your target spell or you have to roll an ability check. That doesn’t change here. The initial spell will either be 3rd level or lower. If the initial spell is 3rd level, it would be countered without a check and would fail. However, you want your spell to succeed, so you counter the counter.
The counter was cast with a 3rd-level spell slot, and your counter was also a 3rd-level spell, which means you negate it, and your original 3rd-level spell that you cast with your action succeeds. It only gets tricky when spells start being cast at higher levels.
Example #2: You go to cast plane shift, a 7th-level spell. Your opponent goes to counter you, using a 6th-level spell slot. They have to roll an ability check using their spellcasting modifier to meet or beat a DC of 17 (10 + your spell’s level). But, you’re not going to give them that chance, so your Wizard ally counters with a 6th-level spell slot. The Wizard doesn’t need to roll a check because the spell automatically negates any spell cast at its level or below.
Your opponent’s counter is negated by your Wizard, and you can successfully finish your plane shift spell. It can be somewhat confusing to keep track of at a table where multiple PCs and foes are constantly countering each other, but there are some limitations that DMs can rule on.
Let’s go back to our second example. If the Wizard only had 5th-level spell slots to work with, he would need to roll an Intelligence check against a DC 16. The Wizard rolls a total of 15, just shy of his goal. Rules as written state that everyone else in the party could also try and counter so that the plane shift spell can be completed.
However, many DMs who don’t want to keep track of everyone shouting and rolling all at once (or the possibly unfair advantage of having multiple players countering a single enemy) may rule that only one character can attempt to counter a single spell. Alternatively, if two PCs are trying to counter a spell, the DM might give one player advantage on their ability check (assuming one is needed) and have both players mark off the appropriate spell slots.
Other Common Questions
In addition to counterspelling a counterspell, there are plenty of other perplexing issues that often come up when someone whips out their counterspell.
If an Enemy Counterspell Succeeds, Do I Lose The Spell Slot?
Yes. Counters don’t interrupt the spellcasting, they just doom the spell to fail. You consume the spell slot because you did cast the spell; it just had its magic robbed before taking effect.
If I Counterspell an Enemy, Did the Spellcasting Still Happen?
Yes. If the enemy is a Wild Magic Sorcerer, they can still have a Wild Surge and need to roll on the table because they still cast the spell. Counterspell does not mean that the spell didn’t happen, merely that it failed. Similarly, if you have an ally with the Mage Slayer feat, they can still use their reaction to attack because the target did cast a spell; you just ensured it wouldn’t work as intended.
Does Counterspell Stop Melee Attacks Associated With a Spell?
Yes, although not many people would waste a spell slot countering something like green-flame blade. But, if the spell specifies that a melee attack from a weapon is made in conjunction with the spell, canceling the spell also negates the melee attack.
Counterspell is an amazingly useful spell that has plenty of applications, but it can be complex to keep track of in large-scale combat. We recommend saving it for extreme situations, so your DM doesn’t get a headache, but you can absolutely use it to counter someone else’s counterspell.