Monday, March 1, 2021

Magic: The Removing

For a long time, many Magic players advised players just getting into limited formats to follow the heuristic "BREAD". After bombs – the absolute strongest cards in a set, that could singlehandedly change a losing game into a come-from-behind victory – the acronym recommended that players draft removal.

Although BREAD is better used as a vehicle for butter and jam than as a Magic strategy, the fact remains that removal is the cornerstone of Magic by providing a necessary element of interactivity and allowing players to affect each others' plans. Entire colors are frequently made or broken by how strong their removal performs. However, while there have been plenty of set breakdowns based on their removal spells, I have not yet seen a breakdown of general removal effects at common in modern Magic and what they need to be effective. That's what this article intends to fix, color-by-color.

Before I get started in earnest, I want to note that this article will only cover removal effects frequently seen at common. This is both because Limited and kitchen table Magic are primarily built around commons, and because it's hard to make a bad Wrath of God effect.

Black: The House That Doom Blade Built

I'm beginning with black because its removal effects are the simplest to explain. The tempting phrase "destroy target creature" has long drawn players into the color since time immemorial. Since unbounded creature destruction is so powerful in Limited, black has largely been the most consistent performer in modern Magic, sometimes becoming the undisputed best color in a set and hardly ever dipping below average.

The two ways to balance a "destroy target creature"effect are to limit it to creatures of a certain type (in black's case, usually weak creatures as in Reave Soul) or to change its mana cost. Modern design teams have more or less settled on four mana (Eviscerate and Bake Into a Pie) as a safe value for a creature kill effect that is still very playable, occasionally dipping to 1BB if they want to make really premium commons. This effect has proven to be so reliable that it can support black even when its other commons turn out underwhelming.

Black also has access to -X/-X effects, which tend to occupy the "more efficient, but less effective" side of the spectrum. The exact value of X varies; -2/-2 is probably the lowest it can go and still essentially qualify as a creature spell, and Dead Weight's increasing number of appearances in modern sets denotes that this is a good baseline for -X/-X effects. These can also vary between enchantments, instants, and sorceries depending on the rest of black's composition in the set and the overarching set themes (for example, Theros sets using Auras over sorceries).

To examine how the strength of removal can singlehandedly change a color's prospects, let's look at Black's worst recent performance, in Eldritch Moon. In that, we can see that its two most powerful tools were hobbled in different ways – its creature destruction effect, Certain Death, cost a whopping six mana, and Boon of Emrakul, its -X/-X effect, was still strong but made creatures with more than 3 toughness even more of a threat than they were previously. Without these effects to lean on, black had to try and compete with the other colors using its creatures, something that isn't really its strength.

Note that if even one of these two effects is strong, it can carry the other one: In Khans of Tarkir, the destruction spell was the equally clunky Rite of the Serpent, but black was an important component of the two strongest clans (Abzan and Mardu) because it still had access to Debilitating Injury, an efficient -X/-X spell that had relevance even in the late game in a format with morphs all over the place. (It also had the absurd Murderous Cut at uncommon, but uncommons don't shift a color's power as much unless there's multiple extremely good ones.)

(incidentally, this is one of my favorite pieces of Magic art)

Red: Burning Cinder Fury of Crimson Chaos Fire

Red has exactly one relevant removal effect (barring artifact sets): Dealing damage. Fortunately, direct damage is play design's dream because there's dozens of ways to tweak its power level, effectiveness, and fit for the set.

Although red has only one removal tool, it comes in a variety of options. Most sets will have some combination of:
  • Efficient but weak effect, like Shock
  • Midrange effect that deals 3 or 4 damage for 2 or 3 mana, and is usually the best common in red for that set (like Demon Bolt)
  • Expensive effect, usually at 5 mana or so, that can kill almost any relevant threat, like Searing Barrage
These basically span the gamut for any creature that red needs to remove; anything more powerful than even the Searing Barrage effect means that red probably deserves to lose the game for letting their opponent play a 7-drop in the first place.

The most obvious knobs for damage are mana cost and the amount of damage it can deal. Like counterspells, direct damage effects suffer from the "half-a-mana" problem where 3 damage for 1 mana (Lightning Bolt) is too strong but 2 damage for 1 mana (Shock) is too weak. The solution to this is to include effects that aren't quite worth a mana on their own but that can be tacked onto a direct damage effect to make it more satisfying. One consistently performing option for this is making the spell exile the creature it hits (Magma Spray, Scorching Dragonfire), which is always somewhat useful but can be moreso in a set with a graveyard theme: For example, Magma Spray's reprint in Amonkhet with a bunch of embalm creatures.

The amount of damage itself is also important. 2 damage is only enough to handle most creatures in the early-game; 3 damage can destroy most early-midrange creatures; and 4 damage will kill almost anything on the board except the largest of creatures. What this really means is that if your cheap damage spell deals 2 damage, you should make sure that red players have access to a more powerful damage spell in the format, even if it's expensive. Red was the worst color in Theros: Beyond Death because it only had access to a 2-damage spell at common (Omen of the Forge), as its big damage effect had a mostly infeasible sacrifice clause attached to it.

One of the more interesting ways to balance a direct damage spell is whether or not it can target players. WotC has been fairly cautious about giving cards like Lightning Strike to players in recent years, presumably so games don't end with the other player suddenly sending 10 damage at your dome without warning. While this makes sense, being able to close out the game after a sudden board stall is a classic red play pattern, and no Standard environment should be without it. 

Green: Putting All Its Eggs in One Basket, Then Punching The Basket

Much like red, green has a single removal effect, in fight; unlike red, green's fight effects are usually constrained to a single card per set. This makes green one of the most inconsistent performers in contemporary Limited Magic because so many of its strengths revolve around whether the fight spell is good or not this set.

The baseline fight spell, Prey Upon, is inadequate.  Although it's very cheap, allowing you to play a creature and then cast Prey Upon in a single turn, there's too many things that can go wrong with it. Notably, you can't even have a creature that's equally sized to an opponent's – you're 2-for-1ing yourself unless you have actually the biggest creature on the battlefield. Even then, your opponent could use a combat trick on their own creature or remove yours, pushing you behind by a fair margin. Note that Prey Upon's last Standard-legal set appearance, Guilds of Ravnica, was also a set where green lagged significantly behind the rest of the colors. (Also note that Undercity Uprising, a card that granted deathtouch, was still too weak to salvage green in that set.)

There are two major ways to improve the baseline Prey Upon. The first is to use one-sided "punch" effects, and indeed, I believe that Rabid Bite could be a good starting point for sets that don't otherwise want their fight effects to be drawn in a certain direction. Punch effects are more satisfying to cast, can be scaled to a premium level (see: Ambuscade) and have the added bonus of not making players remember they have damage marked on their 5/5 before they send it into combat and have it get killed by a Goblin token. 

The other way is to grant the fighting creature on your side a power and toughness boost. I'm surprised that Epic Confrontation hasn't seen more play than in its premiere in Dragons of Tarkir, since it really fell into the sweet-spot of removal, even in an era with noticeably bad removal: You could regularly trade up for 2 mana and it felt satisfying without warping the draft around it. Hunt the Weak is more expensive, but its relevance in most of the sets it's appeared in demonstrate that even a boost as miniscule as +1/+1 can make a fight spell good.

White: Quick! The Shark-Pacifying Bat-Aura!

As opposed to green, which relies on one catch-all removal effect, white has a bunch of situational removal effects and hopes that the player can draw the right one to be able to deal with a threat at the appropriate time. 

White's marquee removal is probably the Pacifism effect, which promises you to be able to make any creature on the battlefield useless unless your opponent uses some kind of niche effect to get the creature back in their hand. Pacifism effects have long been white's backbone in Limited sets, but recently, even granddaddy Pacifism hasn't been performing to the standard it has been. The reasons why are fairly complex, and likely not even WotC knows the answer exactly, but presumably a major part is the increase in creatures with strong ETB effects.

However, one option that has repeatedly succeeded in generating strong Pacifism effects is the Pacifism effect with the option to later permanently remove the creature. One might argue that the power of the most recent version of this effect, Dreadful Apathy, was due to it being an enchantment in a color with a bunch of constellation cards and a good flicker effect, but both Choking Restraints and Caught in the Brights were well-received in their own formats, as well. Frankly, this case is so cut and dry that I believe Choking Restraints, the most "neutral" of the three printed so far (as Dreadful Apathy was a bit more pushed), should be white's default Pacifism effect from now on.

Here are some other common white removal effects and notes on them:
  • Destroying a creature with high power, most commonly Smite the Monstrous. The situational nature of these cards often make them not valued very highly. The one card of these that was notably powerful, Skywhaler's Shot, was cheap, scried, and, most interestingly, targeted power 3 instead of 4. This might be the sweet spot for these effects, as many flyers and useful utility creatures have 2 power anyway.
  • Dealing damage to, or destroying, an attacking or blocking (or tapped, in the case of Summary Judgment) creature. Most recent effects in this space have been underwhelming; it might be that the actual playable level for this sort of effect is something like 3 damage for 1 mana or straight-up destruction for 3 mana.
  • White has also toyed with permanent exile effects at a high (5 or 6) mana cost; this effect threatens to gnaw at white's weakness of "having a lot of situational answers and few ways to filter out the right ones", and if it isn't strong enough to do that, it's not really strong enough to tussle in Limited. We can chalk this up to more of a failed experiment than anything.
  • The "tapper" creature that could lock down one creature per turn cycle used to be a mainstay of white, but hasn't been seen that much outside of Law-Rune Enforcer in War of the Spark (which was added primarily because Amass warped the format in a weird way; see my article about that for more information.) I have a theory about why tappers aren't seen anymore, but I'm planning on making that its own article in my Usual Suspects series, so I'll forego an explanation for now.
  • Oblivion Ring effects were moved into uncommon at some point, which might have been a misstep – it's an effect that's unique to white and can handle most threats, but has a weakness that can be fun for the opponent to exploit. I'd like to see these come back to common, even at a worse rate than originally.
  • White may also be moving into the space red previously occupied in Massive Raid and Outnumber, gaining the ability to deal damage based on the number of creatures it controls. While its first journey into the space with Outflank was underwhelming, I expect the effect could be good with the right tuning.
White had a notoriously bad run in Limited formats in 2019, starting in Ravnica Allegiance and ending in Throne of Eldraine. (It didn't have great removal in Throne, but I'm chalking up its performance in that set to having great aggressive creatures like Flutterfox and a bunch of cards at common with built in two-for-one effects.) I expect that this is in part due to the fact that white's suite of removal doesn't match up well against an increasingly competitive slate of creatures, and needs reëxamining as to which iterations of these effects are the best.

Blue: What If My Football Team Was All Tight Ends?

Blue is in an interesting position because in Limited because its removal is considerably weaker than the other four colors. Instead of evaluating its removal on the basis on how well it can permanently remove creatures on the board, we have to evaluate it in terms of how well it can maintain the blue deck's dual focuses of slowing down the game and maintaining a tempo lead.

In most sets, blue has access to a bounce spell like Unsummon and a lockdown spell like Claustrophobia. It will also occasionally get an expensive card that puts a creature on the top of its owner's library or a mediocre -X/-0 combat trick, but the former two effects are usually what it relies on. Since blue has access to the best fliers in the game and strong control finishers, it can get away with just stalling the game until it can sneak through for lethal damage. Bounce spells serve both roles – you can Time Walk an opponent by bouncing their 5-mana creature on turn 6, or win the game by returning their blocker when they don't expect it. Claustrophobia effects are the only way blue has to deal with a problematic creature for good, and they're worse than white's Pacifisms for the most part.

(Blue is, of course, the color of counterspells, but its counterspells at common are more designed for kitchen table Magic. The only popular exceptions for Limited are Essence Scatter and Disdainful Stroke, which don't appear in enough numbers to be considered an essential part of blue's generic removal suite. I do think they could stand to show up a little bit more so blue feels a bit more dynamic to play.)

Let's get into the particulars of what lets blue's effects do their job. Aether Revolt, a set where blue lagged behind the other colors, is an excellent case study. Its bounce spell was Leave in the Dust, which on its face would seem like a pretty reasonable card. Repulse costs a single mana less and is considered one of the best bounce spells of all time, and blue got a reasonable performer in Drag Under literally two sets before. Setting aside Drag Under's value in a format with emerge, Leave in the Dust demonstrates how critical mana cost is for bounce spells compared to most other removal. Other colors can have their go-to effects be made a bit more expensive, but the tempo gain you get from bouncing a creature is immediately offset by the mana you spent to cast it if you spent more than 3 mana on it.

Blue's Claustrophobia effect was Ice Over, and surely the issue with Ice Over is fairly visible: It doesn't tap the opposing creature! Not only does this mean you're probably going to eat at least one attack from the scary creature that you want to ice over, it means you might have the card stranded in your hand as your opponent uses it as a blocker to stabilize their board. While blue is the most control-heavy color, most Limited decks are some shade of midrange, and blue might need to use their Claustrophobia effects offensively. The rate a non-tapping lockdown effect would need to have to be actually playable is absurd – probably something like 1 mana with flash and some other upside. It's better to have cheap lockdown cards be either unreliable, like Sleeping Potion and Singing Bell Strike, or require building around, like Unquenchable Thirst and Winter's Rest.

Anyway, one of the easier things about designing for blue isn't that its removal is good, or that it doesn't have weaknesses, but that those weaknesses are much more obvious than some of the other colors so you can design around them. Just make sure your bounce spells are cheap and your lockdown spells can actually do their job, and you should be well on your way to making blue be actually competitive.


Magic's fun comes from the ability to interact with your opponent in-depth, and so having a baseline of effective removal spells is key to maintaining the fun of the game. By paying attention to what each removal effect needs to fit into its niche, you can make cards that players are excited to grab 1st pick instead of cards that players will pick 9th after a huge sigh.


  1. A removal spell I doodled recently:

    Lethal Threat B
    Before the game begins, if one or more copies of ~ are in your library, you may reveal a copy of ~ and name a converted mana cost.
    Destroy target creature or planeswalker with the named converted mana cost.

  2. For what it's worth red did have another removal spell in THB at common. Iroas's Blessing was a 4 mana deal 4, although you needed to have a creature of your own to enchant with it.

    1. Also there has been a white common creature that can tap others in every standard set since WAR. Some of them, like: Captivating Unicorn, Makindi Ox, Snare Tactician, Celestial Enforcer and Goldmaw Champion are more difficult to trigger consistently or defensively. But Checkpoint Officer was a real tapper and a solid part of the various Mardu Humans decks in Ikoria limited.

      I don't think white tappers are going anywhere long term, it's just nice to push the pendulum around and sometimes take a break from the strongest version.

    2. I treat "tap a creature when it attacks" creatures as more of an efficient beater, but thanks for pointing out some of the other examples I missed

    3. in regards to "tap a creature when it attacks". it makes me think about common creatures that are A: not vanilla or french vanilla. and B: not a "Bear with set's mechanics". i'd love to see a "usual suspects", but those cards would most certainly be part of the Un-usual suspects

    4. Tap when it attacks is removal if two things are true IMO:
      1.) the tapper is likely to win or survive combat.
      2.) the deck doesn’t care about blocking.

      At its best, I’d compare attack tappers to claustrophobias that don’t tap or an o-ring style effect with vanishing in terms of where it lands on the removal spectrum.