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Rules FAQ How Does Counterspell Work in D&D 5E?

Counterspell is a 3rd-level abjuration spell on the sorcerer, warlock and wizard spell lists, which allows you to attempt to interrupt the casting of a spell. Its description can be found in the Player’s Handbook.

This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!


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Spells in D&D allow casters to solve problems with a word, to destroy battlefields with swathes of fire, or remake reality itself! But even the most powerful archmage can have their wish undone by a lucky level 5 wizard! Fair or not, counterspell is has a reputation of ruining fun, but most wizards won't leave the inn without it prepared. So how does it work?

It’s a spell
It might seem obvious, but counterspell is a spell, and follows the spellcasting rules in Chapter 10: Spellcasting of the Player's Handbook.
  • It can be interrupted by another counterspell, because you can see it being cast.
  • While casting a spell that uses an action, you can use your reaction to cast counterspell in response to a counterspell being cast.
  • Casting a bonus action spell prevents you casting another spell on your turn, unless it’s a cantrip that takes one action (Player's Handbook page 202). This includes reaction spells such as counterspell. Once your turn is done, you can cast counterspell on other turns.
There’s a spell being cast and I want it to stop!
To cast counterspell, you must meet the following conditions:
  • You have your reaction available - counterspell uses your reaction, competing with any other options or features you have that use a reaction, including Readying an Action, and other defensive spells such as shield and absorb elements.
  • You expend a 3rd-level or higher spell slot - counterspell uses spell slots, competing with other cool spells you might want to cast, and limiting the number of spells you can cast in a day.
  • You can see the caster - if you can’t see the creature casting the spell, you can’t cast counterspell. A creature obscured behind a wall or in thick fog can cast without fear of counterspell.
  • You can see the spell being cast * - you react to seeing the spell cast, perceiving its verbal (V), somatic (S) and/or material (M) components.
  • You must be within 60 feet - if the caster is further away, counterspell doesn’t have the reach to interrupt their spell.
  • It is a spell being cast - counterspell can only interrupt spells, not other magical abilities. It can’t stop a dragon's breath weapon, a medusa’s petrifying gaze, or beholder’s eye rays.
Compare your spell slots!
Once you’ve cast counterspell, compare its spell level to the spell level of the spell you’re attempting to interrupt. A spell’s level is determined by the spell slot used to cast it (Player's Handbook page 201).

If you cast counterspell at its lowest level using a 3rd level spell slot and your opponent cast their spell as a cantrip, or using a 1st, 2nd or 3rd-level spell slot, then counterspell causes their spell to fail. Their spell slot is spent with no effect. When you’re up against spells of higher levels (4th-level and higher), you must make an ability check to see if it succeeds. Roll a d20 and add your spellcasting modifier to the result. The ability check DC is equal to 10 plus the level of the spell being cast. If you meet or beat the DC, counterspell interrupts their spell! It’s spent with no effect. If you fail on the DC, counterspell does nothing.


A quick example: Dani the druid is casting blight using a 5th-level spell slot. Wimbles the wizard, sees this and is within 60 feet of Dani, so uses her reaction to cast counterspell using a 3rd-level spell slot. Because Wimbles’ counterspell level is lower than Dani’s blight spell level (3rd-level against 5th-level), Wimbles must roll an ability check. Her wizard spellcasting ability is based on her Intelligence, an 18, giving her a +4 to her Intelligence ability check. The DC is based on Dani’s blight spell: 10 + the spell’s level (5) = DC 15. If Wimbles rolls a 11 or higher on a d20 for a total of 15 or higher, Dani’s blight will be interrupted by counterspell. If Wimbles rolls a 10 or lower, the blight spell will be cast as usual.

Casting at higher levels
Unless you use a spell slot equal to or higher than the spell slot of the spell being cast, you make an ability check. The check isn't affected by the level at which you cast counterspell.
  • A 9th-level spell has a DC 19 ability check to interrupt, whether you counterspell using a 3rd or 8th-level spell slot.
  • A 9th-level counterspell will interrupt any spell cast without requiring an ability check roll.
*When can’t you see the spell?
Spellcasting is perceived by the combination of verbal, somatic and material components used when casting spells. If a spell is cast without any components, you can’t respond with counterspell, because you can’t see it being cast.
  • Subtle Spell metamagic - sorcerers can choose Subtle Spell metamagic, allowing spell casting without verbal and somatic components. They can avoid their spells being interrupted by counterspell (including counterspell itself) as long as the spell has no material components.
  • Innate Spellcasting - some monsters have innate spellcasting defined in their stat blocks. For example, the mind flayer has Innate Spellcasting (Psionics): “requiring no components.” (Monster Manual page 222). The pixie also has Innate Spellcasting: “requiring only its pixie dust as a component.” (Monster Manual page 253). A pixie’s innate spells can be countered because you can see them casting the spell using their pixie dust, whereas the mind flayer’s spells can’t be seen.
  • Invisibility - Many invisibility effects, including the 2nd-level spell, invisibility, and the potion of invisibility state that “the effect ends early if you attack or cast as spell”. Considering that if you cast a spell that uses concentration, the invisibility spell ends before you start to the new spell, I think it's clear you can't use this type of invisibility to avoid being seen casting the spell and counterspell. The 4th-level spell greater invisibility does allow you to cast spells without being seen, so long as they don't require concentration.
Spells cast using magic items
Spells cast from magic items are described in the Dungeon Master's Guide page 141: "The spell is cast at the lowest possible spell level, doesn't expend any of the user's spell slots, and requires no components, unless the item's description says otherwise." (My emphasis). Unless the item says the spell uses components, there are no visible components and the spell can't be interrupted by counterspell. (Edit: Thanks Asisreo for the correction)

For interest, some magic items further avoid the possibility of being interrupted by counterspell:
  • Items that describe the effect of a spell, without casting the spell. For example, Necklace of Fireballs says “You can use an action to detach a bead and throw it … When it reaches the end of its trajectory, the bead detonates as a 3rd-level fireball spell.”
  • Sentient magic items that cast spells themselves. As they’re not creatures, they don’t trigger counterspell. For example, "Blackrazor can cast the haste spell on you once per day.”
 
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Will Gawned

Will Gawned

gelf

Explorer
Here is some further info, that I couldn't fit in the article!

How do I access this incredible power?

This list isn’t comprehensive, but covers many of the ways you’d expect a character to access counterspell:

Sorcerers, warlocks and wizards gain access to counterspell at level 5, as soon as they have access to 3rd-level spells, as it appears on their spell lists.

Eldritch knight fighters and arcane trickster rogues can also access counterspell because they share the wizard spell list.
  • Eldritch knights can select it at level 13 as an abjuration school spell choice
  • Arcane tricksters must use one of their ‘any school of magic’ spell choices, the earliest available being at level 14.
Two paladin subclasses have counterspell on their oath spells feature, at level 9.
  • Oath of redemption from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
  • Oath of watchers from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Bards can choose to learn counterspell as one of their magical secrets, as early as level 6 for college of lore bards, or level 10 for other colleges.

For anyone else:
  • From Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, if you join the Azorious Senate faction, you can add counterspell as a guild spell to your class spell list.
  • From Eberron: Rising from the Last War, the dragonmark variant human Mark of the Sentinel adds counterspell to your class spell list.

I want to be better at this!

Some classes and subclasses have features that improve counterspell:
  • Abjurer wizard’s level 10 feature, Improved Abjuration, adds the wizard’s proficiency bonus to ability checks required as part of casting an abjuration spell (mainly counterspell and dispel magic) improving your chance of success when you try to interupt higher-level spells using your lower-level spell slots.
  • Bard’s level 2 feature, Jack of All Trades adds half proficiency bonus to counterspell ability checks.
  • War magic wizard’s level 6 feature, Power Surge, benefits from counterspell, as a way to charge up the ability, converting successful counterspells into bonus damage on a future turn.
  • Sorcerer’s Distant Spell metamagic, allows them to extend the range of counterspell to 120 feet, and the optional level 5 class feature, Magical Guidance (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything page 66), allows a reroll of failed counterspell ability checks.
  • Warlock’s pact magic feature means their counterspells are always upcast as the warlock gains class levels. The new Pact of the Talisman option from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (page 70) gives a bonus d4 roll to failed ability checks.

Buffs for everyone!
  • The 2nd-level spell enhance ability (on artificer, bard, cleric, druid and sorcerer spell lists) is a relatively easy way to gain advantage on counterspell ability check rolls, as well as other ability checks covered by the enhanced ability.
  • The guidance cantrip helps if cast in advance, as does bardic inspiration given prior to the counterspell cast.
  • Glibness, an 8th-level spell on the bard and warlock spell lists, sets 15 as the minimum on your Charisma based d20 ability check rolls, so you’re very likely to succeed any counterspell attempts, as bards and warlocks use Charisma as their spellcasting ability (with an 18 in Charisma, +4 modifier, you hit DC 19 on every roll)
 

MarkB

Legend
Great article. A couple of comments:

You mentioned that Counterspell automatically counters spells of 1st, 2nd or 3rd level. It might be worth adding that this also includes cantrips.

One thing that often comes up is whether the counterspeller knows what spell is being cast. Typically a DM will just say, e.g., "the necromancer casts Fireball", but if a PC is using Counterspell often they may start getting cagey about what their NPCs are casting.

I believe Xanathar's clarifies that it requires a reaction to try to identify a spell as it is cast, which then doesn't leave you a reaction with which to counter it.
 


gelf

Explorer
Counterspell wars between PCs and NPCs can get interesting in terms of selecting spell level and recognising spells. If you really want to be fair and sneaky, you can have each person write down the spell and spell slot level used and then reveal them at the same time, but hopefully there is enough trust between the DM and players that this isn't necessary most of the time.

I generally rule spells which you know, those that appear on your class spell list, and those you've seen cast before (in game rather than written into backstory) can be recognised without using a reaction. Also, I rule if you try to recognise a spell, you can choose to counterspell as part of the same reaction. If you don't counterspell, the reaction is used anyway.
 
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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I don't particularly care for the guess-which-spell-this-is game when it comes to counterspell. I'll tell the player what spell it is freely and they can decide which level of counterspell to employ. At a minimum, that's one fewer fireball or hypnotic pattern for them to bring out that adventuring day and that's good enough for me. If there's some kind of magical effect I really want to present during the challenge, I'll just make it something other than a spell. Or I can have more than one caster.
 

Bolares

Hero
I generally rule spells which you know, those that appear on your class spell list, and those you've seen cast before (in game rather than written into backstory) can be recognised without using a reaction. Also, I rule if you try to recognise a spell, you can choose to counterspell as part of the same reaction. If you don't counterspell, the reaction is used anyway.
I make the same rulling, unless I have 2 casters in the group. Then I make one identify and the other counterspell.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
I believe Xanathar's clarifies that it requires a reaction to try to identify a spell as it is cast, which then doesn't leave you a reaction with which to counter it.
Xanathar's adds an optional rule where you expend a reaction to identify a spell as it is cast.

Without the Xanathar's optional rule, the DM dictates what, if any, information about the spell being cast is revealed to the player. Common ways to handle that is you can recognize spells on your class's spell list you are of sufficient level to cast, or just giving an Arcana check, or simply always saying what the spell is.

---

Note that you can use reactions, including counterspell, on your turn. This results in the classic "I cast a spell", "I counterspell", "I counter your counterspell" slot tax, where lots of words are said, slots expended, but the narrative remains unchanged. A game of slot level poker can develop.

However, note that Counterspell uses a S component. To perform a S component, you must be able to move one hand freely while casting the spell. And if you are casting a spell with a S component, one hand is occupied by casting that spell. If your other hand isn't free, you won't have a hand free to cast counterspell while casting the first spell. This can short-circuit the counterspell slot tax.

Most DMs allow a hand holding a focus to also be used for S components, but some only permit this for spells with a M component.
 

gelf

Explorer
However, note that Counterspell uses a S component. To perform a S component, you must be able to move one hand freely while casting the spell. And if you are casting a spell with a S component, one hand is occupied by casting that spell. If your other hand isn't free, you won't have a hand free to cast counterspell while casting the first spell. This can short-circuit the counterspell slot tax.
I've always let players use the same free hand for both spells, but I see your point. This is a valid reading of the spellcasting rules.
 

MarkB

Legend
Xanathar's adds an optional rule where you expend a reaction to identify a spell as it is cast.

Without the Xanathar's optional rule, the DM dictates what, if any, information about the spell being cast is revealed to the player. Common ways to handle that is you can recognize spells on your class's spell list you are of sufficient level to cast, or just giving an Arcana check, or simply always saying what the spell is.

---

Note that you can use reactions, including counterspell, on your turn. This results in the classic "I cast a spell", "I counterspell", "I counter your counterspell" slot tax, where lots of words are said, slots expended, but the narrative remains unchanged. A game of slot level poker can develop.

However, note that Counterspell uses a S component. To perform a S component, you must be able to move one hand freely while casting the spell. And if you are casting a spell with a S component, one hand is occupied by casting that spell. If your other hand isn't free, you won't have a hand free to cast counterspell while casting the first spell. This can short-circuit the counterspell slot tax.

Most DMs allow a hand holding a focus to also be used for S components, but some only permit this for spells with a M component.
If you're countering someone else counterspelling your spell, then unless your original spell was a cantrip you'll lose it anyway, because you've now cast another non-cantrip spell on your turn.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
Xanathar's adds an optional rule where you expend a reaction to identify a spell as it is cast.

Without the Xanathar's optional rule, the DM dictates what, if any, information about the spell being cast is revealed to the player. Common ways to handle that is you can recognize spells on your class's spell list you are of sufficient level to cast, or just giving an Arcana check, or simply always saying what the spell is.

While I agree this is common, and I tend to let it go (I am even lenient with the range...), it is not as easy at is seems. Superficially, I'd agree that the wizard would be to recognize "Wingardium Leviosa" and act accordingly if he knows the spell, without spending a conscious reflexive moment (a reaction) to identify the spell being cast. It is how it works in my mind, and I think many other's mind. However, the rules about writing spells in your spellbook explain that each wizard has a personal way of understanding each spell and the cost and time to copy the book not only reflect the time to copy it but to adapt it to the wizard's particular notation. In that case, what if the nature of the somatic and verbal component is sublty changed, recognizing a spell might be justify more stringent measures, like the ones offered in Xanathar, from a thematic point of view.

Note that you can use reactions, including counterspell, on your turn. This results in the classic "I cast a spell", "I counterspell", "I counter your counterspell" slot tax, where lots of words are said, slots expended, but the narrative remains unchanged. A game of slot level poker can develop.

Ninja'ed by @MarkB, with whom I concur. I think one of the very few reason to actually follow the complex rules disallowing multiple spellcasting on the same round is to avoid the "I counterspell your counterspell!" game.
 


Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
Items that say “you can … cast the spell” can be interrupted by counterspell. For example, Wand of Magic Missiles: “While holding it, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast the magic missile spell from it.”
Unless the magic item states the owner needs to provide components, I believe no components are needed to cast spells through magic items. This includes somatic and verbal components, making the spell you cast imperceptible and therefore ineligible for counterspell.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
If you're countering someone else counterspelling your spell, then unless your original spell was a cantrip you'll lose it anyway, because you've now cast another non-cantrip spell on your turn.
There is no limit on the number of spells that can be cast in one turn (other than the number of actions available), unless one of those spells requires a bonus action. So one can cast a spell with an action and then cast another spell with a reaction. However, if one casts a spell as a bonus action (even a cantrip!), then one cannot cast a spell as a reaction that same turn because a spell cast using a reaction is not "a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action".

Because I don’t think that is a rule.

the “you can’t cast a 1 action spell except a cantrip this turn” clause is under bonus actions, there is nothing about that in regards to reactions.

i think the article is in error
The article is correctly saying that if you cast a spell as a bonus action, you cannot then cast counterspell during the same turn, since casting a spell as a bonus action precludes casting spells as reactions.
 

sevenbastard

Adventurer
I don't particularly care for the guess-which-spell-this-is game when it comes to counterspell. I'll tell the player what spell it is freely and they can decide which level of counterspell to employ. At a minimum, that's one fewer fireball or hypnotic pattern for them to bring out that adventuring day and that's good enough for me. If there's some kind of magical effect I really want to present during the challenge, I'll just make it something other than a spell. Or I can have more than one caster.

Agreed. This goes both ways. My NPC can counterintelligence the same way and it makes it not seem like the NPC have some advantage over the players on when to use counter spell.
 

gelf

Explorer
Unless the magic item states the owner needs to provide components, I believe no components are needed to cast spells through magic items. This includes somatic and verbal components, making the spell you cast imperceptible and therefore ineligible for counterspell.
My earlier reading was that the item itself acts as the 'material component' the same way a spellcasting focus does, but I think you're correct. Dungeon Master's Guide page 141: "The spell is cast at the lowest possible spell level, doesn't expend any of the user's spell slots, and requires no components, unless the item's description says otherwise."

I'll edit the article to reflect this.
 

Mort

Legend
Because I don’t think that is a rule.

the “you can’t cast a 1 action spell except a cantrip this turn” clause is under bonus actions, there is nothing about that in regards to reactions.

i think the article is in error

From the Player's Handbook (through DnD beyond):

Bonus Action​

A spell cast with a bonus action is especially swift. You must use a bonus action on your turn to cast the spell, provided that you haven't already taken a bonus action this turn. You can't cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action.

This seems to clearly preclude casting a spell as a reaction until your turn comes up again.
 

MarkB

Legend
From the Player's Handbook (through DnD beyond):

Bonus Action​

A spell cast with a bonus action is especially swift. You must use a bonus action on your turn to cast the spell, provided that you haven't already taken a bonus action this turn. You can't cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action.

This seems to clearly preclude casting a spell as a reaction until your turn comes up again.
Hmm, it's not as clear-cut as I thought. Certainly, the Bonus Action rule precludes casting another non-cantrip spell on the same turn that you cast a bonus-action spell, even with a reaction, but there's nothing that specifically precludes casting a spell as an action and also casting a spell as a reaction on the same turn. Good spot @Stalker0
 

jgsugden

Legend
2 things I would consider adding:

1.) Your reaction 'recharges' at the start of your turn. Thus, if you counterspell a counterspell on your turn, your reaction is gone until your next turn. The question of whether a reaction is available is the most often overlooked element of counterspell in my experience, especially in high magic games.

2.) The Aberrant Mind sorcerer's psionic sorcery is another 'counterspell proof' option. For those 11 spells, there is no way to counter them when cast using this mechanic.
 
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Rabulias

Hero
Reactions are not on your turn, they take place on another creature's turn. So reaction spells can be cast even if you had cast a bonus action spell on your turn. See the rulings on the rogue's Sneak Attack damage applying "once per turn," but it can also be applied on an Opportunity Attack, a reaction on someone else's turn.
 

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