The Kitchen Table #236 – The Casual Toolkit: Creature Removal

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Thursday, June 5th – Today, I am writing a sequel to my previous casual toolkit article that talked about countermagic. In this article, I intend to give you kind folks a chance to see different sorts of creature removal.

Happy Thursday to you, my friends. This is your dentist Abe, examining your decks for any plaque and removing the unsightly stains from your pearly cards.

Today, I am writing a sequel to the previous casual toolkit article that talked about countermagic. In this article, I intend to give you kind folks a chance to see different sorts of creature removal.

In the countermagic article, I explained that I regularly see decks getting played that have the wrong counters in them. I see these decks in articles and at the kitchen table. They just throw anything into the deck, instead of seeing what the deck needs and filling that role.

There are more creature removal cards in the game than counters, so this should be a nice, thick article, full of casual tastiness.

You have to do more than just “build a clever deck and then flesh it out, ho hum.” Every card you toss in a deck has value, and you want the maximum value out of your collection. Thus, you need to have a casual toolkit, and that’s where this series of articles comes in.

So We’re Different Colors, and We’re Different Creeds…

There are several different things for which creature removal is primarily used.

Pathcutter — Removal in aggressive decks is used mainly to clear a path so that attackers can get through and deal a lot of damage. Counter-Sliver used Swords to Plowshares to get in hits with their slivers. This is typically used solely in aggressively-oriented decks.

Defense — Many removal spells are played primarily to keep yourself alive, and take out attackers. Some removal spells can only be used in this way. A classic example is Wing Shards, which is used solely to keep you from dying to attackers. If you use Terror to kill an attacking Serra Angel aimed at your head, then you are playing it in Defense. Note that you can kill in anticipation of an attack. If your opponent plays a Darksteel Colossus, and you have sorcery removal for it, then by all means, play it and get it out of there now. That’s still playing as Defense.

Disruption — Removal is often used to disrupt your opponents’ plans by targeting and killing specific creatures that are vital to their success. Taking out the Wellwisher in an elf deck is a good example of disrupting your opponent’s plans.

Apocalypse — This is the mass removal of many creatures at once, with the intent of keeping the board free of clutter. This can be anything from Wrath of God to Pyroclasm. Note that this can keep some creatures alive, including your own. Dropping Plague Wind is still Apocalypse, even though your creatures survive the plague.

Now that we have the four primary uses of removal out of the way, let’s take a look at the next step, which is vitally important.

And Different People Have Different Needs…

It is always, always important to ask this question:

Does your deck need creature removal?

Well, does it?

Suppose you are confronted by this decklist, does it need creature removal?

4 Morphling
2 Deep-Sea Kraken
4 Fact or Fiction
2 Deep Analysis
20 Different Counters
24 Islands

Should you toss in a quartet of Pongify or Psionic Blast?

Probably not. Your counters can act as removal on a regular basis, and your deck could benefit from more creatures, especially at the multiplayer table.

Now, an interesting thing is going to happen to this question that distinguishes it from the countermagic discussion.

Countermagic is generally more useful that creature removal. A Counterspell is an answer to more cards in the game of Magic than a Swords to Plowshares. Thus, you might think that the added versatility of countermagic would mean that more decks would want counters than creature removal.

This is, however, not the case. Instead, more decks want creature removal than countermagic. Why?

Countermagic is almost exclusively the purview of Blue, with only the occasional rare and limited exception. However, every color has creature removal, even Green with cards like Wing Snare and Whirlwind, or Blue with Erratic Mutation and Psionic Blast. Since every color has access to removal, every deck that might need some creature removal can find some, no matter the color. On the other hand, a mono-Green deck with a bunch of permanents that cost three or four Green mana each might want counters, but can’t afford the Blue splash to get them. And that’s just one example.

Frankly, I’d advise many decks to run creature removal if they don’t already, especially at the multiplayer table. I’ve built decklists for you with complex combos that only have space for the combo and the cards needed to set up, and nothing left over for creature removal or defense. Sure, those decks are fun, but they are not reliable, precisely because they do not have the requisite defense that many combo decks need.

As a result, I suspect that a lot more decklists are going to be interested in adding some creature removal, whereas a smaller contingent wanted countermagic.

It’s Obvious you Hate Me Though I’ve Done Nothing Wrong…

After determining if the deck even wants creature removal (which is normally a yes), we move on to the next obvious question. What sort of creature removal does the deck need?

This is the stage where we go back to the four main reasons to play removal, and add the best removal available that suits the deck’s needs. Of course, you can use most creature removal for all four ways when needed. Nothing stops a White control deck from popping an annoying flyer with a Swords and swinging for game through the air. Nothing stops a super-aggro deck from using a precious Lightning Bolt on a Priest of Titania that is growing in mana production geometrically. There should be some trends for what your deck needs, so suit that need.

Let’s take a look at some skeletons and flesh them out with removal. Suppose you have the following deck:

Sample Goblin Beats

4 Goblin Lackey
4 Goblin Matron
4 Tattermunge Maniac
4 Goblin Piledriver
2 Goblin Marshal
2 Siege-Gang Commander
4 Goblin King

What do you add to flesh out the deck? I suspect that you should look at creature removal, and in Red, you are either going to get expensive creature removal (like Fissure or Aftershock) or cheap burn. You could also splash creature removal from another color, or add artifact removal.

So ask yourself, what sort of creature removal does the deck need? Take a look at the four major needs for removal, and decide which one comes to mind. After reviewing, you’ll see that your deck wants Pathcutter removal. It mainly wants removal to clear a path for the attackers

Now let’s look at another sample deck skeleton:

Sample Machine Head

4 Blazing Specter
4 Skizzik
4 Stupor
4 Duress
4 Vicious Kavu

What do you add to this deck? If you look at the four major uses of creature removal, you’ll see that this deck really wants Pathcutter removal as well. Even though this may be a control deck, as opposed to the aggro deck above, it still wants removal for the same general purpose. It wants to kill off creatures, and then swing for game through the holes.

Sample Blue-White Control

4 Counterspell
4 Absorb
3 Serra Angel
2 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
3 Serra Sphinx
4 Tidings
4 Opt
2 Gift of Estates

What does this control deck need? It wants some creature removal to supplement its defense, and thus wants Defense removal. It is not looking to clear a path for its Akroma in most cases, and it has some countermagic already to flesh out the deck. What it needs is a nice suite of removal to keep it alive. Thus, it will run different sorts of removal than the two above decks.

Sample Ghoul Deck

4 Ashen Ghoul
4 Nether Shadow
4 Nether Traitor
2 Phyrexian Horror
2 Skull Catapult
4 Buried Alive
2 Necrosavant
2 Carionnette
4 Night’s Whisper

What does this deck want? Well, take a look and see what would help. What does it want creature removal for? You’ll note the presence of Phyrexian Horror and Skull Catapult for the little creatures already. It can bring back its creatures from the dead again and again. Therefore, sweeping removal in the category of Apocalypse is needed for the deck, such as Damnation. That would fit perfectly.

Sample Mono-Green Secret Forces

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Creeping Mold
4 Troll Ascetic
4 Wall of Blossoms
4 Harmonize
4 Natural Order
4 Verdant Force
4 Seedtime

Suppose you had this decklist for a multiplayer game. What creature removal would be a good choice to add? It needs defense, not on the ground, where it has creatures to mug up things, but in the sky. Therefore, it wants removal for Defense. Play some sky removal to shore up this hole.

Sample Five Color Green

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Civic Wayfinder
2 Man-o’-War
4 Harmonize
2 Ordered Migration
4 Evasive Action
2 Hull Breach
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Regrowth
2 Wayfaring Giant
1 Teferi’s Moat
1 No Mercy
1 Raking Canopy
1 Stratadon
1 Draco
2 Mulldrifter

What removal would you add to this deck? What needs does it have? It already has defense with its creatures and enchantments. It doesn’t want to kill all of its creatures with Wrath effects. It doesn’t want to make holes to punch through. Instead, it wants creature removal for Disruption, to disrupt opposing plans. Therefore, it might toss in removal for various creatures that are central to your opponent’s plans, and with access to all five mana, it should do decently well.

As you can see, different decks have different needs. You need to assess the creature removal needs of each deck, to discover the primary way of shoring up its holes.

I’ve Never Really Met You so What Could I Have Done?

This next section is dedicated to asking follow through questions for your creature removal.

There is one point here that was not mentioned in the countermagic article, because it was not necessary. In Magic, there are countless cards that serve multiple roles, and you will often find cards that removal creatures and do something else. The primary way of doing this is on creatures, such as Ghitu Slinger, Flametongue Kavu, Shriekmaw, and Lieutenant Kirtar.

There are also permanents that have the ability to continually off opposing creatures. In countermagic, there are not many recursive permanents, like Null Brooch or Ertai. As a result, it was not a topic to mention there. Here there are things like Aladdin’s Ring or Prodigal Sorcerer that can hit again and again.

There are also ways of killing creatures that are not direct creature kill. Playing Might of Oaks on just about any creature in combat will kill a blocking or blocked creature. The same is true of cards like Venomous Breath and Gaze of the Gorgon. In pre-Sixth edition rules you had to worry about cards like Twiddle killing off your blockers.

These are all important factors in deciding what creature removal to run.

Note that the same card can be used in different ways. Just as Counterspell can do all three major tasks of countermagic, Terminate can do three of the four major tasks of creature removal. You might find Terminate in a deck that wants it for Disruption, Pathcutter, or Defense.

However, it is important to understand what you want, because there might be things that are better. There are also other factors. Let’s take a look.

One primary factor is your collection. You can’t run Damnations in the Ashen Ghoul deck above if you don’t own any. The beauty of creature removal is that all of the good removal, except for sweeping removal, is common or uncommon and cheap to procure. Build for yourself a nice suite of creature removal for your toolkit.

Collect any removal spells that you see yourself playing. Cards like Rift Bolt, Eyeblight’s Ending, Rend Flesh, Crib Swap, Pongify, and Phthisis fit nicely alongside other classics such as Swords to Plowshares, Diabolic Edict, Lightning Bolt, Expunge, and Wing Snare.

Don’t collect any old removal spell unless you plan to use it. There are some removal spells that are just crappy. I run Agonizing Demise occasionally, but I doubt I’ll ever toss Gloomlance into a deck. Likewise, I like Chill to the Bone in snow decks for flavor purposes, but I don’t expect to be playing any anytime soon, so I doubt it will make the cut. As such, there aren’t any Chill to the Bones in my toolkit.

There are uses for removal spells like Pongify and Crib Swap that give your opponent tokens, but Pathcutting is not likely to be one of them. Understand what you need.

Another restriction is the colors in your deck. You might be able to splash into a color with more friendly removal, but finding good creature removal in Blue and Green for your deck’s needs is not always easy. A mono-Blue aggro deck is going to be hard pressed to find a lot of Pathcutting removal, and a Green-Blue control deck is going to have to work hard to find sweeping removal that doesn’t pop their artifacts and enchantments, while hitting creatures on the ground (like Nevinyrral’s Disk or Hurricane).

While on the topic of restrictions, remember the format you play. At my table, you can play a legal deck, as long as its legal somewhere. Your table may frown upon silver bordered cards, and that means you can’t run Kill! Destroy!. It may only like more recent formats, and disprove of you tossing Psychic Purge into a deck. Rolling Earthquake may get you stares at your table, I don’t know.

Know your format restrictions, but also know your metagame. Akroma and Darksteel Colossus are big everywhere, so pack removal for them. If there are creatures rolling through your metagame, pack removal for that too. If your table is suffering through a surfeit of reanimation decks packing goodies like Akroma and Kokusho, then make sure your removal is up to the challenge of taking them out, permanently. Never be embarrassed to drop a Crib Swap on a reanimation player.

Also note that your deck may be played in various formats. Is this a good deck for the emperor or lieutenant in a game of Emperor? Are you expecting to run it in Secret Alliances? Multiplayer and duels? Make sure your creature removal is suited to the variant in which you are shuffling.

I Can’t Understand What Makes a Man Hate Another Man

Now that we have asked a lot of questions, it’s time to give some answers. Take a look through your toolkit and see if you can’t find some good removal for your different decks.

Cards like Spite/Malice, Void, Nevinyrral’s Disk, Whirlwind, Order/Chaos, Psionic Blast, Roots, Wing Shards, Pestilence, Chainer’s Edict, and Mouth of Ronom will each fit in different decks with different looks to them.

Then remember that you have other cards that contribute to creature removal as well. Creatures, artifacts, lands, and enchantments can serve as removal, from Nekrataal to Pacifism.

Suppose you have a mono-Red aggro deck with eight open slots for creature removal, and you know that you need Pathcutting removal. You could run Incinerate and Lightning Bolt and call it a night, but after realizing what you want removal for, there may be better options. Flametongue Kavu will kill a bloke and add to your attackers, so that’s good. Arc Lightning may not be an instant and may cost three mana, but it can potentially clear out multiple blockers, which is your goal. Therefore, your creature removal suite may well be better with FTK and Arc Lightning at four each, rather than running Lightning Bolt and Incinerate (this would depend on whether your answer to some of the above questions — collection, variant, multiplayer, format, etc)

Keep your eyes open, and don’t assume that the obvious choice for creature removal is always the best choice. Good luck in your deck building!

Until later…

Abe Sargent