Save That Removal Spell!

Tuesday, March 1 – Matt Sperling delineates one of the most important skills in Limited Magic: when to cast that removal spell, especially in Mirrodin Besieged Draft.

I overheard the following conversation between two experienced Magic players:

Player A: “How bad is he [at Magic]?”

Player B: “He’s the kind of guy who just uses his Hideous End on the first thing he sees. ‘Finally, I drew the Swamp, kill your wall.’ Or whatever you
have out.”

Years and years ago, I remember watching players I looked up to, like Huey (William Jensen) and Neil Reeves, play Limited. I’d watch and try to spot
plays they would make that I wouldn’t have thought of. What made them better than me at Limited?

One of the common patterns that emerged was that they were very reluctant to use their removal spells before they needed to. I’d be watching and think
“Okay, now he’s going to Scorching Lava that 2/2 flier,” only to watch Huey take two, four, or six damage from the flier. The top players seemed to
play as though they were scared to waste the removal spell.

So when do you need to kill that 2/2 flier? What about that 5/5 fatty? Answering these questions correctly on a consistent basis is difficult. It
requires an understanding of many other aspects of the game state and also must be done with imperfect information, since we don’t know what the
opponent holds or what he or she will draw in the coming turns. So it’s difficult, but it’s also important. Using removal spells too early is a big
leak in many players’ games.

Let’s now get into some of the details.

To break up the discussion into manageable parts, I’ll discuss what to do “when you’re being attacked” as well as what to do “when you’re attacking”
the opponent. This is just a way to discuss things; obviously the concepts can apply at the same time (when a creature might threaten to block now and
attack next turn, for example), or neither one could apply (in a stalemate, there might be a creature that threatens to break the stalemate later). The
concepts discussed below are useful even where the title doesn’t quite fit.

When You’re Being Attacked

Playing optimally often comes down to figuring out how many “hits you can take” before you have to kill something that’s attacking you. That is perhaps
a very different framework than you’re used to. Let’s break it down further.

i.             How likely is it that the opponent will play something I want to kill more than what is currently on the table?

If the creature on the board now is very likely to be the best threat the opponent has (imagine a Geth or a turn 3 Phyrexian Crusader), then it might
not make any sense to wait. As the threat we’re facing gets less powerful, the likelihood we’ll face a better threat later increases. As we get down to
something like Molder Beast, we’ve got to consider what might emerge in the following turns (and how likely that is to happen). To do that we need to:

a.      Know the opponent’s deck from prior games or from the draft; and

b.     Know the general curve and common threats in the archetype you’re playing against

Oftentimes, Molder Beast is near the top of the opponent’s curve, so using our Turn to Slag on it makes perfect sense. But what if we know we passed
this player two Fangren Marauders in the draft, and we would have a very difficult time beating that card? In that case, we might want to trade two
creatures for the Molder Beast, take some trample damage, and save our Turn to Slag.

A key point here is thinking about non-removal ways you might have to neutralize the opponent’s threat. A 3/3 can be neutralized by playing a
creature with three or more power or four or more toughness. How many of those are in our deck? A 3/3 flier is much harder to neutralize this way than
a 3/3 ground creature. A 3/2 is easier than a 3/3. Take a second to consider roughly how many cards you could draw that would neutralize their threat
without spending a removal spell.

ii.            How much removal is in my hand and deck?

Here, we’re just making sure we consider how scarce a resource our removal is. If we have another removal spell in hand or eight more in our library,
we can afford to be more liberal with how we spend the first one we use. We still don’t want to use removal too soon and kill a threat we might not
have had to kill if we waited a turn or two, but we now have the luxury of being a little less concerned about wasting a removal spell.

The first reason why we can be more liberal with our removal is obvious: if they play a bigger threat, it’s more likely we’ll have something to deal
with that threat too, so the potential danger of “wasting” the removal isn’t as large. The second reason is less obvious. Having more removal in our
deck means that our life total just matters more. Decks with a lot of removal have an easier time topdecking their way back into a game, so saving life
points early matters more to them. Again, don’t get carried away; just understand that saving two or three life points matters more to the deck with a
lot of removal than to the deck with mostly creatures. Drawing an extra 2/2 or 3/3 creature might not save you where drawing a kill spell would.

iii.            Your life total is a resource that you can trade for more information before you decide.

Imagine you’re at twenty life, and the opponent plays a 3/3 flier. This is the third game of the match, and you know most of your opponent’s deck.
You’ve haven’t seen your opponent cast a single creature better than a 3/3 flier the entire match. He’s playing a U/B Control deck with a few fliers
and lots of creatures who intend to block. In game 2, he killed you with a 3/2 flier after stalling the ground. In this situation, even though
knowledge of the opponent’s threats is telling us to kill this Sky-Eel School, I’d likely take at least one hit from the flier before killing it, just
in case.

Assuming I have more removal in my deck somewhere, I’ll just go to seventeen and see if a better threat emerges next turn, unlikely as that is. If I’m
likely to die to the School and have only this one removal spell available, I might as well kill it now.

Let’s say my deck has two other ways to kill the 3/3. I wait to use my removal, and my opponent plays a Thopter Assembly that I haven’t yet seen. I use
my Turn to Slag on the Assembly, and now I have six draw steps (including this turn’s) to draw something to deal with the 3/3. That’s the upside. The
downside of waiting is that if I kill the 3/3 flier at 17 or 14 life, those life points could matter down the road. Against U/B Control and at twenty
life, the tradeoff is usually worth it, even when the chance of seeing a better creature is remote.

In a different context, we might be at much lower life total with five poison counters, facing a Blackcleave Goblin for example, but the opponent might
have so many better threats in their deck that it just isn’t worth using a Turn to Slag on it. Go to seven poison, and reassess. If they play a better
threat and you draw a blank, you might have to kill the better threat, go to nine poison, and untap, hoping to draw a creature. That’s still preferable
to killing the Blackcleave Goblin now, being at five poison, and succumbing to their better threat (say a Cystbearer or Plague Stinger) despite drawing
2/2s or 1/1s that could’ve blocked the Goblin.

iv.            How flexible is the removal spell?

In many of the above examples where it made perfect sense to hold onto a Turn to Slag in case of emergency, so to speak, it wouldn’t have made sense to
hold onto a Burn the Impure. We should Virulent Wound our opponent’s turn 2 Myr far more often than we Grasp of Darkness our opponent’s turn 2 Myr.
It’s not that we should be willing to “waste” a Virulent Wound; it’s just that, looking at some of the factors above, it’s often unlikely our opponent
can play a better threat that dies to the Virulent Wound. Later in the game, it might be incorrect to Virulent Wound a Copper Myr because of the
combination of the odds our opponent plays a better one-toughness creature and the utility Virulent Wound has in combat or for finishing something off.

A quick aside about killing mana creatures: it isn’t something I like to do unless I have a very aggressive opening (such that the opponent’s missing a
land drop or saying “draw, land, gui” too many times will leave them dead) or the removal spell is something like Virulent Wound or Contagion Clasp or
Mortarpod, which kills only small guys. Shattering mana Myr without any pressure on board isn’t a recipe for success. The opponent will eventually find
the mana to play their spells in most cases, and you’ll wish you had a Shatter. What about buying yourself time when they threaten to ramp out
something big? With spells like Shatter or Grasp of Darkness, killing the first thing they play often buys you more time anyway. With something like
Burn the Impure, you can still usually kill the first thing they play, and even if you can’t, you might need that spell to “finish off” the fatty after
a chump block later. It’s too nearsighted to try and kill the mana to delay the real threat.

As is typical, this category overlaps and interacts with the others. Knowing your opponent’s likely threats (through memory or just archetype
knowledge) helps you figure out just how flexible a Grasp of Darkness or a Shatter is in the matchup. Against Infect decks, I Shatter liberally but use
Grasp of Darkness only where it feels like I need to. If Contagion Engine has killed me game one against a control deck, I might save a Shatter a few
turns longer than normal so I have a safety net if he draws it again.

v.            Be cognizant of the opponent’s reach.

Reach, which is slang for “ways to finish the game once the defensive player has stabilized on-board threats,” such as direct damage or cards like
Concussive Bolt that prevent blocking, is an important counter-factor to my insistence that you use your life total as a resource to buy information.
Against some decks, you can go to one life or nine poison with confidence that you have control over the game. If the opponent has Galvanic Blast in a
red deck or Contagion Clasp in an infect deck, you need to be more cautious. Just how cautious depends on how much reach they have and on the other
factors discussed above. Sometimes, you just have to gamble on the opponent not having any reach; other times, you have the luxury of “playing around
everything.” Use the other factors to tell the difference.

When You’re Attacking

Using removal to rid the opponent of a blocker can be very different from removing their attacker. Let’s see what factors matter here.

i.            Are you far enough ahead to “lose value” on your removal?

If the opponent dies before they can cast their Hoard-Smelter Dragon, you won’t need a removal spell for it. If, when they cast their Hoard-Smelter
Dragon, they’ll be forced to block your fatty and trade, you might not need a removal spell for that Dragon. You need to really think about the coming
turns, your opponent’s likely plays on those turns, and how far behind they will be.

Here’s a fairly typical situation for the Infect deck: You’ve got a couple of 2/2 infect guys out, say a Rot Wolf and a Contagious Nim, and the
opponent is at two poison. The opponent plays a generic 2/2 creature on their turn (Myr Galvanizer or Moriok Replica, let’s say) and will jump at the
chance to trade it with one of your guys. Your board is the two guys and four lands, and your hand is a Grasp of Darkness, a Fangren Marauder, and two
more lands. Your deck contains another couple of removal spells (one Slice in Twain and another Grasp of Darkness and a Virulent Wound), a mix of
infect and non-infect creatures, and two equipment (a Copper Carapace and a Bladed Pinions). The opponent is playing a U/B deck with at least one
Pierce Strider and one Dross Ripper, as well as various other creatures typical of a U/B deck. Given this game state, I’d just attack with both
creatures and hold onto my Grasp of Darkness. If I use the Grasp, my opponent will go to six poison, but I’ll be out of gas if they play another 2/2
and be really in trouble if they play one of their 3/3s. The lands and 5/5 non-infect creature in my hand make me want to set up for the long game more
than gamble on drawing another removal spell to clear the path and win the game next turn or drawing more infect creatures right away. Having an
instant-speed removal spell when it appears that I don’t have removal (since I didn’t kill the 2/2 on turn 2 with four mana up) will be a big trump
card when the 5/5 starts attacking my opponent. The opponent will be tempted to take five a couple of times and then double or triple block to kill the
5/5 (which is hard to remove outside of combat in this format). When they do, I’ll still have my Grasp.

If my hand contained a 3/3 infect for five instead of a 5/5 non-infect for six, I’d still hold the removal in the hopes that I could kill whatever
threatened to go toe-to-toe with my 3/3. If I had another removal spell in my hand or 4+ more in my deck, I’d likely kill the blocker and send my
opponent to six poison. Now, I have twice the likelihood of drawing a card that just kills them next turn, plus I’m less concerned about running out of
removal as the game goes long. If my deck were more “pure poison” in terms of its creatures (you don’t always get the perfect deck), I’d likely apply
more pressure here by using the Grasp. Here, again, there are more cards I can draw to put enough pressure on my opponent to end the game.

With a mix of creatures and only a couple remaining removal spells, it’s too likely my opponent will stabilize, and the value I lost by killing a 2/2
to save my 2/2 will take its toll.

ii.            Be cognizant of your reach.

A deck full of Tumble Magnets and fliers benefits much more from early damage than a deck with several fatties. Getting the opponent down to six or
eight life might be more important than making sure you get value for your Arrest or Burn the Impure.

iii.            How difficult will it be for the opponent to present another answer?

When killing a blocker, you often get more damage in now but also keep the opponent from trading their blocker for your threat. If you have a
Gnathosaur and your opponent plays a Bellowing Tanglewurm, you don’t just get five damage for killing it. The opponent takes five and then has
to muster another answer to the Gnathosaur. This makes the Gnathosaur different from a 3/2 and 2/2, which threaten the same five damage. If an opponent
is at twenty, I might kill the Tanglewurm to get the Gnathosaur through but not the 3/2 and 2/2. There are fewer cards the opponent can play the
following turn to neutralize a Gnathosaur than would neutralize a 3/2 and a 2/2.

Similarly, getting your fliers through is more effective than getting your ground forces through because it’s more difficult for the opponent to mount
the same defense the following turn.

iv.            Understand how more pressure this turn means more pressure next turn.

In the Infect example from above, where I had a Rot Wolf and a Contagious Nim against my opponent’s Myr Galvanizer, by not killing the Galvanizer, I
put my opponent to four poison instead of six, and I let him trade for my Contagious Nim. Let’s think about the next turn. My opponent will likely play
a creature that is either 2/2 or 3/3. My opponent doesn’t have to block the Rot Wolf this turn. They have the option of getting up to five mana and
playing something like the 3/5 defender or a 3/3 infect guy or just a random 2/2 to block the Rot Wolf. My opponent has been given the luxury of
options because I chose to put the maximum amount of pressure on them.

Had I killed the Galvanizer and attacked for four infect damage, the opponent would be forced to block the following turn. My opponent has fewer
options and plays in a more straightforward manner, both of which are advantages for me. A pump spell such as Mirran Mettle (which isn’t in my deck) or
an equipment like Copper Carapace (which is) now either ends the game or cripples my opponent. Adding pressure has so many benefits when we’re this far
ahead that even given all the reasons I listed to not kill the Galvanizer, it’s still a close call. As soon as the hypothetical changed and something
as simple as the composition of the remainder of the deck changed, I altered my decision from save the Grasp to use the Grasp.

Lighter And Unrelated Material: The Quiz

Ever wanted to test your knowledge of the Pro Magic community? I’ve devised the following quiz to test your level of commitment to following
professional Magic. When you’re done, score the exam as follows:

5 Correct Answers: “I have a problem” — you likely own more than one T-shirt with the word “Kibler” on it.

4 Correct Answers: “Jessica, I can’t go to prom with you; I’m gonna be out of town for a family event” (MODO PTQ that night).

3 Correct Answers: “I hope my boss doesn’t find out how much time I spend reading Magic content.”

2 Correct Answers: “I recently made a Facebook account as a Magic card like Jace or Elspeth because some of the pros wouldn’t accept my friend
request as a human.”

1 or Fewer Correct Answers: Healthy Level of Interest in Professional Magic

On to the quiz:

Question 1:

How many of the photos in the following collage are Owen Turtenwald Grand Prix Top 8 Photos?


A: None, and I wouldn’t leave my child within five miles of any of these creepers.

B: Two, Owen with his dog and Owen with his Hawaiian shirt are unmistakable.

C: Three, my computer’s facial recognition software tells me there are four different faces, and I don’t think it counts the dog.

D: Six, they’re all him at different stages of his life, some created using the Mommy What Will I Look Like software that predicts future appearance.

Question 2:

What is Patrick Chapin book about Magic strategy called?

A: Next Level Magic

B: I Hope they Serve Smirnoff Ice in Hell

C: Phallic Haircuts and Intimidation in Magic

D: Counting a Friend’s Deck While Dead on Board and Other Ways to Embarrass Yourself

Question 3:

Which of the following is the most impressive feat?

A: LSV going 17-0 in San Diego

B: Rietzl making the finals of a Pro Tour and Top 32 of a GP at the same time

C: Cedric Phillips quitting the game for an entire three weeks

D: Dave Williams convincing his girlfriend to name their daughter after a planeswalker

Question 4:

No Gambol, _____:

A: No Shmamble

B: No Future

C: No Scars Sealed Deck

D: No Work for Wescoe

Question 5:

Where were you when Matt Nass finally made Level 4?

A: Making love to my significant other

B: Cashing a check for my appearance fee for Level 5+, since I won a GP last season

C: Drafting an article that more than 5% of the readers enjoyed

D: Who the hell is Matt Nass?

: C, A, D, B, D

P. S. I almost never pull punches, apologize, or cater to those who can’t take a joke, but I want to deviate from that (slightly) and say that Matt
Nass is actually a really good kid who has his head in the right place and works hard to improve. I was happy to hear he made Level 4, and I want to
congratulate him on making the train. May Elves and gym shorts never go out of style!