Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Defense of Doom Blade

It is no secret that some of us here at Goblin Artisans dislike Doom Blade.  I am writing to defend this unfairly maligned card.  Doom Blade is an exemplar of a strong, simple common: powerful, but balanced.

First, some historical background.  If you're an Old Fogey, you probably think of the canonical 1B removal spell as Terror.  Terror was printed in every core set until Seventh Edition, where it was replaced by Dark Banishing.  But in Tenth Edition, Terror returned, only to be replaced by the simpler Doom Blade in Magic 2010.

Why has this one spell, in some form, been printed continuously since the beginning of Magic?  Because it's a useful, elegant effect.  Almost all decks run creatures, and the ability to deal with any creature at instant speed has always been a defining characteristic of black decks.

But is Doom Blade too universal, too cheap, too... good?  Despite what Doom Blade Guy would have you believe, Doom Blade is not the best black removal spell out there.  There are tons of circumstances where you'd rather have drawn a different card.

Grave Titan?  Sure wish I had Go for the Throat.

Inkmoth Nexus? Tragic Slip would be nice.

Invisible Stalker?  Where's Liliana of the Veil when I need her?

Delver of SecretsDead Weight's a handy one.

Lingering SoulsCurse of Death's Hold deals with them all.

Entreat the AngelsSever the Bloodline.

How did I get this particular list of black removal spells?  I looked up tournament-winning black decks in Standard, and saw that virtually none of them were packing four Doom Blades.  Instead, they ran a diverse suite of removal spells, including some number of the above.  Solar Flare and Esper Control each run 1-2 Doom Blades maindeck, whereas Zombies (either UB or BR) and Heartless Havengul run zero.  ZERO.

It seems difficult to argue that Doom Blade is overpowered, given that so many decks could easily run it as a 4-of and choose not to.  Indeed, you'd have to claim that Go for the Throat, Tragic Slip, and their many friends are similarly overpowered.  

And if you look at multicolored decks, often the black removal is supplemented or supplanted entirely by red, white, and artifact removal spells.  So if black removal spells are overpowered, what does that say about the rest of Magic?

The truth is that Doom Blade has numerous "invisible" weaknesses.  It only hits nonblack creatures, only kills one creature at a time, and costs 1B instead of B.  (Don't believe the difference between B and 1B is huge?  Count the number of Incinerates in decks today, and compare it to the number of Lightning Bolts a few years ago.)  It can't stop a Tamiyo, the Moon Sage like Oblivion Ring, nor go to the face for five like Brimstone Volley.  You can't flash it back or return it with Sun Titan.  It does just one thing, and it does it well, but is not an standout card in constructed by any means.

P.S.  There is one card in standard that's overpowered, too universally useful, and almost always run as a 4-of in decks of its color.  But it's not Doom Blade.  It's Ponder.


  1. I think the criticisms of Doom Blade do indeed apply to Go for the Throat, Terror, and to a lesser extent Dark Banishing. It's all about mana efficiency. You know how people knock Counterspell for dealing with any 6-mana creature and any 8-mana sorcery for just 2 mana? It's the same with Doom Blade. Less so, because hexproof is more prevalent than uncounterability, and because ETB effects break the parallel. But even excluding ETB triggers, regeneration, shroud, hexproof and prot black, do you still think it's fair that, say, 80% of all creatures in Magic - including at least 75% of all creatures costing 6+ mana - can all be solved by the same 2 mana instant?

    (Not a rhetorical question - I don't think the answer is completely obvious - so I'm interested what you say.)

    1. Excluding those things? Certainly Doom Blade would be better. You're talking about eliminating more than half of the major threats in standard; are these cards being replaced by other strong creatures, or do they just disappear?

    2. Ah, you misunderstand me. I'm saying: Let's consider the set of creatures to which Doom Blade is an effective answer. To establish this set, start at 100% of the creatures in Magic. Remove from consideration all of those which Doom Blade is ineffective against for whatever reason. You're still left with at least 80% (more artifact creatures than gold creatures), and at least 75% of the CMC6+ creatures throughout Magic's history. Is it fair that one CMC2 instant is able to solve that proportion of creatures?

    3. Your percentages may be historically accurate (I didn't check), but they're way too high by the standards of modern design. Let's use M12 as an example.

      There are 116 creatures total in M12. How many of them does Doom Blade stop cold?

      21 of them are black.
      Among nonblack creatures, 13 get immediate value from ETB effects.
      A further 9 have abilities that can be used immediately for value. (four members of the Mage Cycle, Pentavus, Djinn of Wishes, Garruk's Horde, Arachnus Spinner, Mesa Enchantress)
      4 are hexproof.
      2 have death triggers. (Archon of Justice, Goblin Arsonist, Roc Egg)
      1 regenerates. (Cudgel Troll)
      1 recurs. (Chandra's Phoenix)
      1 has a sac ability. (Brindle Boar)

      So there are 52 creatures in M12 where you get some value for casting them even if your opponent has a Doom Blade. This may be a small amount of value (Goblin Arsonist), a decent chunk (Auramancer) or all of it (Grave Titan), but it's always something. And that's 45% of the creatures in M12. So 65% can be completely solved by Doom Blade.

      What happens if we look at CMC 6+ creatures? Then things get even worse for Doom Blade.

      There are 18 creatures in M12 with CMC 6+.

      3 are black.
      Of the nonblack creatures, 5 have ETB triggers for value. (Sphinx of Uthuun and four Titans)
      A further 3 have abilities which can be used immediately. (Pentavus, Arachnus Spinner, Garruk's Horde)

      So we're left with 7/18, or 39%, that are completely answered by Doom Blade.

      But is M12 anomalous because of the Titans? To check, I tried the same test on CMC 6+ creatures from Innistrad.

      10 creatures total.
      1 black creature. (Reaper from the Abyss)
      1 ETB ability. (Geistcatcher's Rig)
      1 death trigger. (Moldgraf Monstrosity)
      1 ability that operates in the graveyard. (Dearly Departed)
      1 ability that works immediately. (Rage Thrower)

      So, 50%, or 60% if you think Rage Thrower is too hard to set up.

      This is no coincidence! Fatties nowadays are designed to have one or more of the following three qualities:
      (A) It doesn't die to normal removal.
      (B) It dies to normal removal, but gives you value anyway.
      (C) It dies to normal removal, but quickly takes over the game otherwise.

      And all three are important. I think this may turn into a whole post on fatty design.

  2. Thanks, Havelock. Always great to have multiple perspectives on a point of discussion.

    FWIW, I do indeed claim that Go for the Throat, Tragic Slip and Doom Blade's many friends are overpowered. What black's removal spells say about the rest of Magic is that most removal spells in most colors are overpowered.

    The only complaint I have about Doom Blade that doesn't apply to all efficient/universal removal is that the nonblack rider is an exception to black's color philosophy rather than an expression of it.

    And yes, Ponder is too good too.

    1. If creature removal is generally overpowered, why do creature-heavy decks dominate in standard and block?

    2. Because creatures have been scaled up enough to be relevant despite removal. This is exactly the spiral I talk about in The Magic Ecosytem.

    3. Right, you claim (if I understand correctly) that this spiral ends with the dominance of discard, land destruction, and countermagic as strategies, which is bad because they're unfun.

      My question is, where are the decks employing these un-fun strategies? I don't know of any such decks in standard or block. Blue runs 4 Mana leaks and usually no other permission spells. We haven't seen a devoted LD or discard deck in years.

    4. First, it takes time to end any spiral. You can never change one thing and see everything move back into place immediately. Secondly, I claim that removal must become less efficient or more conditional so that creatures can become less bomby, at which point the need for the disruption trifecta will be reduced.

      You haven't seen a devoted LD or discard deck because those effects have been successfully scaled back. Mana Leak is rampant because it's too effective.

    5. Mana Leak is good, but people are still playing 3-6 countermagic spells total. We're a long way from Draw-Go. (And R&D has all but admitted that Mana Leak was a mistake; I'd be shocked if it returned in M13.)

      So, just to make sure I'm understanding you correctly: is your claim that un-fun strategies such as discard / LD / countermagic aren't effective yet, but R&D risks making them effective if they continue the power creep of creatures?

      Or are things already un-fun?

    6. Mana Leak isn't even "rampant". It may be overpowered, but even before they printed Cavern of Souls, Mana Leak wasn't all that prevalent in recent months.

      And if anyone's been playing AVR limited, the noticeable imbalance between the conditionality of removal in the set and the power level of creatures has resulted in a good deal of unpleasant gameplay.

  3. Doom Blade isn’t even the basic version of the spell. It’s reduced cost version with a targeting limitation, like Negate. I’d like to see the following simple cards in standard:
    W-Destroy target enchantment.
    1UU-Counter target spell.
    1BB-Destroy target creature.
    1RR-Destroy target land.
    G-Destroy target artifact.
    And every one of them except the counterspell should be a Sorcery. There is no reason that Demystify, Oxidize or Dark Banishing have to be instant. Sorcery Speed will shift the game to a more interactive state than what we have now. Auras, creatures with haste, etc, will all get at least a turn to matter.

    1. 1RR land destruction? Not gonna happen. Deader than Elvis.

    2. Hav, that's an incredibly arrogant attitude, given WotC's propensity to swing the pendulum of power year to year. Besides, one R&D doesn't have one unified Magic philosophy, so there's no point in being a design bully. When Stone Rain comes back, for however long, I'd like it to be in a less splashable form.

    3. Sorry, I was being lazy and flippant; I didn't intend it to come across as condescending. I do take your opinions seriously. Here's what I should have said:

      I would be extremely surprised to see three-mana land destruction make a comeback. Why do you think they'll reprint it?

    4. I'd say Forsythe and MaRo have been rather explicit in saying 3cc LD won't be happening any time soon, but it's true that it could, hypothetically. I feel like you'd have seriously cut back on the number of playable 1 and 2 drops in such a scenario, and slow the game down a good deal overall, so that the harsh tempo of Stone Rain on the play doesn't take over.

    5. I gotcha, Hav. Let me clarify my perspective.

      In the past, there were multiple redundant Land Destruction spells at 3 CMC, which is not something I'm supporting. It was bad for the game. But I do believe in a baseline "Destroy target Land" spell existing in Standard. All the 4+ CMC LD spells being printed now have another bonus ability tacked on them, so I don't see 3R or 2RR being the most basic cost. I think those types of LD spells should continue to be the majority of LD Spells. Wow, if WotC printed Pain (from Pain//Suffering) not as a Split Card, but as the baseline LD spell, it would be pretty awesome. I'd support that.

    6. What if there is no correct basic cost? My suspicion is that "Destroy target land" would be undercosted at 1RR and overcosted at 3R.

      Then again, when I initially responded I was thinking only about Stone Rain (last printed in ninth edition, 2005) and had forgotten the more recent Fulminator Mage and Cryoclasm. In a sufficiently slow environment, I can imagine a single legal three-mana LD spell being okay. But I don't think R&D has a good enough reason to take that risk.

    7. And, as if by magic, Maro adds his two cents on Stone Rain:

    8. I'm okay with Pain then. (Again, from the Pain//Suffering split card.)

      Pain (Common)
      Destroy target land.

      Regardless, the most basic card should exist somewhere in Standard.

    9. I much prefer "standard editions" just not exist.

      By adding exceptions and caveats to cards, it makes them more flavorful and deck building decisions more meaningful. Especially for the "destroy target creature" card.

    10. This thread has inspired me to write a blog post on standard editions and appropriate mana costs.

  4. Doom Blade is great because of its flavor.