Chatter of the Squirrel – What Your Removal Can Do For You, and What You Can Do For Your Removal

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Wednesday, May 27th – I am known to hate a spot removal spell. Occasionally you get something like Skred, sure, that is just so unbelievably good that I’ll swallow my pride and mark a 4 next to it on the deck-reg sheet. But even then I have to suppress a chuckle when people are talking about it as ‘the best card in the format.’ It kills a dude. Awesome.

I am known to hate a spot removal spell.

Occasionally you get something like Skred, sure, that is just so unbelievably good that I’ll swallow my pride and mark a 4 next to it on the deck-reg sheet. But even then I have to suppress a chuckle when people are talking about it as ‘the best card in the format.’ It kills a dude. Awesome. To me, the best card in the format is, at minimum, a card which every major deck has got to care about. Something devastating, format-warping, advantage-generating. And there will always be entire categories of decks that simply do not care about a one for one removal spell.

Sensei’s Divining Top is this kind of card. Dark Confidant is this kind of card. Bitterblossom is this kind of card. Cryptic Command is this kind of card. Windbrisk Heights is this kind of card. These are cards which make you care about them, because if you don’t, it’s very easy to lose. Every one of these cards is a threat, without resurrecting a month-old argument. And while a card like Skred certainly must be accommodated, at the end of the day it’s only going to kill a creature, and virtually every strategy reliant upon creatures assumes that some of its guys are going to get killed.

All of this is to say that the role of removal is and has always been to some degree different than the role of a ‘flagship card.’ We want our removal spells to supplement, facilitate, or enable a deck’s broader overall strategy. In aggressive strategies, often this translates into preventing another strategy from stabilizing with permanents while minimally inhibiting the aggressive deck’s ability to deploy threats. In control strategies, frequently the focus shifts from efficiency to versatility, handling the broadest array of potential threats, though efficiency is still of maximum concern. The difference between one and two mana, and correspondingly between two and three mana, is huge, as is the speed at which a removal spell can be cast.

What I want to talk about today is how to choose a removal spell, and more specifically, why certain decks ‘want’ certain removal spells to the exclusion of others. When a new set comes out, cheap quality removal oftentimes generates the most hype, and consequently also tends to disappoint as the format matures. Unmake, anyone? Even in a format defined by B/W Token decks, there’s hardly an Unmake to be seen, despite everyone cramming it into everything shortly after Eventide came out. The reason for the disparity is not surprising: choice of removal affects a deck’s performance in very subtle ways. It’s hard to notice when the one-mana difference between an Unmake and a Terror loses you the game four turns later because you were unable to deploy multiple spells in a turn, and you get Crueled with two creatures in your hand and only one on the table because the only opportunity to clear that Wall of Reverence out of the way was on the previous turn, and it left you a filter-land short of dropping another guy. Those losses feel inevitable, feel like mana screw, and yet it’s frequently a refinement of the removal suite that separates the good decks from the best.

The thing is, dedicated removal only goes into a deck when there’s something specific that deck wants to do. The choice of that removal to the exclusion of others should be informed by the deck’s broader goals. Witness Sam Black continued adoption of three or four Peppersmoke in his Faerie lists, and its continued status as purported ‘tech’ despite being a constant presence for basically the last year. Faeries wants to be a high-velocity deck, and Peppersmoke sacrifices a great deal of versatility for its low-cost and the potential to dig. Beyond Bitterblossom, Faeries wins because of its ability to chain ridiculous spells like Cryptic Command and Mistbind Clique, and Sam has chosen Peppersmoke precisely because it contributes more effectively than any other removal spell (beyond the ubiquitous Terror) to those goals.

Back to the original statement, then, the reason I hate a spot removal spell is because very frequently the killing of a single creature rarely furthers a deck’s overall strategy, but is rather a concession to the deck’s need to actually survive in reality. A lot of the time, it means there’s something else you could or should be doing. It’s worth noting that across every single Constructed Grand Prix or Pro Tour I’ve ever played in, I’ve played exactly two spot removal spells: Swords to Plowshares in PT: New Orleans 2001, and Terror at PT: Honolulu 2008. Everything else has either been burn, which can obviously serve the strategic purpose of range, or Vindicate, a card we’ll talk about again later. By contrast, I’ve loaded up on the mass removal: Pernicious Deed, Savage Twister, Wrath of God, Akroma’s Vengeance, Decree of Pain, Molten Disaster, and even Myojin of Cleansing Fire spring immediately to mind. This is because a successfully-executed mass removal spell, because of the advantage it gains, can actually become a strategy in and of itself.

The point is not to say that spot removal is bad, but rather that it really needs to accomplish something specific.

I wrote an article a couple of months ago about a Tezzeret list, and one of the most beneficial things I learned from that article was how difficult it is to streamline your removal to the threats that people are actually likely to present. I ended up needing to adopt an ugly combination of Celestial Purges, Broken Ambitions, Paths to Exile, and eventually Terrors to address the problems of Mistbind Clique, Figure of Destiny, and Tidehollow Sculler in the most maximally efficient way possible. In the case of this deck, it was simple to identify the key threats that mandated the need for removal because you by and large had to actually answer everything. But in a more aggressive deck, this process can prove more problematic. How, then, do you choose?

One obvious answer involves internal synergy. The ‘Boat Brew’ deck took a great leap forward with the introduction of Path to Exile, because it made Knight of the White Orchid even more insane. Path helped fight Figure of Destiny battles, dealt very effectively with Sower and Mistbind Clique, and interacted favorably with Boat Brew’s intense mana demands (both because of its low cost and because of its ability to Rampant Growth) and with its ‘Gotcha!’ Reveillarks. Similarly, we ran Nameless Inversion in Chevy Elves because the creature type mattered and because it was such high value to pump a Tarmogoyf or Perfect-boosted Vanquisher for the last couple of points in a pinch. In these cases, the choice is basically made for you.

Other times, the nature of what must be answered invalidates some of your potential options. The best example of this I can think of is actually happening right now: Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tenders are running around all over the place. On the surface, Terminate is simply a strictly better spell than Terror. Relevant Black creatures, from Tidehollow Sculler to Demigod of Revenge to Broodmate Dragon, abound in the format, and given the base-Red nature of most of the format’s RB decks, there is actually no difference in the two spells’ respective mana costs. But Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender is by far the biggest problem for Red aggro decks, and is the creature most likely to demand a removal spell immediately. The longer that guy stays on the table, the worse-off a Red deck is likely to be. And so Terror becomes the correct choice because of the nature of the threat that needs answering.

What I most want to talk about, though, is what to do when versatility becomes an issue. This issue first cropped up on a major scale when Ravnica Block entered the picture, and players could choose between Putrefy and Mortify and would often just settle for the 2/2 split without pausing to consider which would be superior even for a moment. It’s not simply a matter of whether more artifacts or enchantments were being played in the format; rather, it’s a matter of which type of permanent is more problematic for your deck. In a format dominated and defined by Umezawa’s Jitte, I was almost always inclined to err on the side of winning the Jitte war, and I could get over being unable to deal with a Heartbeat or a Promise of Bunrei or two, particularly when you usually beat Heartbeat in other ways besides going after their key enchantment.

The sort of classic example of why this is important, though, comes from the Extended Zoo decks of about two years ago. There’s been some talk lately about how Maelstrom Pulse compares with Vindicate, with the consensus being that while Pulse is no Vindicate, it’s still a really solid removal spell. I am actually not convinced that Pulse is worse than Vindicate. In fact, I feel like Pulse is one of the five best removal spells ever printed, and from a deckbuilding perspective is a much more crucial variable to keep in mind than Vindicate ever was. So much of the time, certain draws just lose to the easy two-for-one off a Pulse, and the mere existence of that card in a format means that you can’t play out your nut draw for fear of the momentum turning around entirely.

Vindicate, it may surprise many readers to note, actually underperformed during its tenure in Standard. It wasn’t overhyped, per se; it was merely a solid role-player that never really became a format-defining card. You frequently played two copies of that spell to shore up holes. The problem wasn’t that Vindicate was bad; it was simply that there wasn’t anything around that it needed to do.

All of that changed after the introduction of Five-Color Zoo.

Vindicate wasn’t widely adopted, at first, even within that archetype. But with the move of Vindicate into the Molten Rain slot, the deck became a machine, and Vindicate was one of the reasons for that dominance. The reason Vindicate was so insane in this situation was that it actually took up the slot of a land-destruction spell, but with an almost inconceivable amount of value added to that slot at zero extra cost. Vindicate wasn’t being played as removal; it was being played to inhibit development, but the value of being able to rip one on turn 4 or 5 and have it deal with your opponent’s best permanent put it into a class of spell that heretofore had never been seen. It was actually good on every turn, but it was good precisely because it was the kind of spell you never had to hold in your hand in lieu of applying pressure. It needed the right kind of deck built around it to make it a superstar – the type of deck that could really milk value out of its ability to hit a land.

In every other conceivable kind of deck, Maelstrom Pulse is just exponentially better. It beats nut-draws. It punishes multiple-Borderpost hands, which can otherwise lead to ridiculous starts of their own. It renders Oblivion Ring obsolete. It invalidates entire strategies, like Turbo Fog, antiquated. And – in stark contrast to most spot removal – the longer games go on, the more threats that are added to the board, the better of a topdeck it becomes. Entire games can swing on the removal of multiple Plumeveils, multiple Nacatls, multiple Putrid Leeches.

When playing against Pulse, your best conceivable hands – triple Nacatl, say, out of Extended Zoo, double-Vanquisher from GB – just lose right away, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

And of course it deals with, you know, everything.

Everyone knows that Pulse is good. But it was met with much less hype, much less overt excitement, than (for example) Path to Exile. And I think that’s because its ability to generate two-for-ones was quickly mitigated, relegated to the back, a sort of bonus that would never really happen very much in reality. Something people sort of forgot about. But it’s very difficult to lose when you generate two-for-ones with tempo, and the ability to generate those kinds of wins far outclasses, I think, the superficial restraints of timing that differentiate pulse from other superstars like the aforementioned Putrify and Mortify, and even from the Stone Rain potential of Vindicate. There were plenty of times when your Stone Rain just didn’t do anything, even when it felt like it would be savage.

I think people lose track of the quantity of games that Pulse can ‘just win’ because it’s so anticlimactic when it happens. “Oh, got his two Bloodhall Oozes with Pulse, he didn’t do much afterwards.” It always feels like an anomaly. But it keeps happening. And, as we’ve mentioned on this site thousands of times before: you don’t have to win pretty. You just need to win.