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Removal has changed.
When I came back to the game, removal was everything. You prioritized it over everything but the most savage of bombs. Premium removal was cheap, instant-speed, and got the job done in one shot, for the most part. It also came in at common, so you would see it, play with it, play around it, game in and game out.
The Doom Blade Days.
For years, people preached of the theory of B.R.E.A.D.
Aggro (I still have no clue what this means)
There are a few different version of this acronym, but you get the idea.
It was used to show newer drafters how to prioritize their picks. And right after bombs, we see removal. That part is roughly right. The overall concept behind B.R.E.A.D. is horribly outdated, even bordering on misleading.
Today we throw out the old bread.
Besides being too simplistic, the theory behind B.R.E.A.D doesn't hold up. Booster Draft is far too complex and fluid for such a blunt tool. You need tools, experience, logic, deduction skills, and a good brain to draft well. Additionally, things are always changing, so you have to be agile in mind.
The biggest change I've seen in my draft career centers around the removal, and I've compiled a list to help show how much removal has changed just in the six years I have been drafting seriously.
I've made a list of the best removal spells from each block going back to Shards of Alara. I've highlighted the most premium of removal from each set. I kept this list restricted to common cards.
Journey to Nowhere
Burn the Impure
Grasp of Darkness
Victim of Night
Bolt of Keranos
I realize that presenting a list like this may make it tricky to see some of the trends. One easy way to see it is just to take an older set and a newer one and compare them directly.
Let's look at Zendikar/Worldwake and compare the removal to Khans of Tarkir.
In Zendikar/Worldwake we have:
In Khans of Tarkir we have:
Debilitating Injury is probably the best removal spell in the set, and it's not even that good! In Innistrad, we had this very similar card:
That's right, it's the exact same card but for a full mana less! Imagine essentially any card you draft with. Now take a mana off the cost. It becomes amazing! The difference one mana makes is massive, and can't be overlooked.
Yet this is the best removal we have in the set. I couldn't bring myself to put Bring Low on the list, for Bring Low's sake.
Now look at the removal we had in Zendikar.
Wow! Burst Lightning is insane, cheap, instant speed, and flexible. Disfigure is a lot like Debilitating Injury, but instant speed and a full mana cheaper. Hideous End makes a mockery of any removal in Khans of Tarkir, as does Journey to Nowhere. And don't go thinking that Suspension Field is in any way comparable to Journey to Nowhere. Journey to Nowhere does away with the pesky restriction, and for the same cost! And it was a common instead of an uncommon!
Another small case study: the death of Doom Blade.
It started like this:
The next year, we got it back. This was comfortable as it was a modern version of Terror. We were used to this.
In Magic 2012, it was still here. Yay.
Then in Magic 2013, it got a little worse. Well, kind of. It got a lot more expensive, became unsplashable, and lost a restriction. Seemed fair. Nice clean design, too.
Then it left, and became this in Magic 2014:
What? OK. So cheap, instant-speed, black removal is out, apparently. (Doom Blade was actually in the set, but as an uncommon. Now that's respect!)
Would that trend continue?
Flesh to Dust is back to being instant speed, but still way more expensive.
There are plenty of examples like these.
You get the idea. Things have slowed down, gotten more expensive, and in some cases more conditional as well.
This is the reality that we live in now. You just don't get to have cards that are so much more powerful and more efficient than the threats they were designed to deal with.
In the Doom Blade Days, you would expect to get a two-for-one some of the time from your Doom Blade, and at the very least you would spend far less to kill the creature than your opponent did to cast the creature. This is why cards like Doom Blade were so sought after. They were way out of balance with the cards they were killing.
What does all this mean? What changes in the current world?
Many things, it turns out.
New World, New Order
The biggest changes come in the form of risk assessment adjustments.
Playing Auras that didn't dramatically affect the game itself was almost laughable back in the Doom Blade Days. You would get blown out so often it made you shy away from a strategy like that altogether.
Nowadays you can run an Aura or two if your deck really wants it, and not feel as embarrassed. Overall, I still try to avoid running all but the most impactful Auras; the removal still exists, it's just much slower. A slow two-for-one is still a two-for-one, though, and not something I'm interested in being on the wrong end of.
Combat tricks are better now. When it costs five mana to kill a creature, it's far easier for the coast to be clear for combat tricks. Same with the sorcery-speed removal spells; they don't affect combat tricks at all. In some cases, combat tricks become the de facto removal spells in a format. Since the risk is lowered in playing them, winning combat becomes one of the ways to get opposing creatures out of the way, and combat tricks do a fine job with that.
Defensive combat tricks have gotten much better too. Cards like these have gone up the ranks since the demise of hyper-efficient removal:
When you combine how cheap these cards are with the fact that your opponent is often tapping out completely just to kill your best threat, cheap reactive answers become much more desirable. Often, these will counter a five- or six-mana spell. That's pretty incredible value! These spells also help win combat when needed, as described above.
One thing that hasn't changed much since the Doom Blade Days are bounce spells. Usually variations on Unsummon, they were eschewed in favor of "real" removal like the cards described above. This made sense when the choice was between killing a creature or bouncing it for the same amount of mana. Interestingly, the bounce spells have remained at about the same mana cost and speed. Usually, they are somewhere around two mana and instant speed.
There are some strategies that demand that you interact with your opponent's creature in some way early in the game. For times when you just need something, a bounce spell can deliver. If people are adjusting to the new removal scheme by playing more Auras and combat tricks, bounce spells can easily garner a one-for-one.
I have found myself valuing these higher and higher as time has gone by.
The concept of Defensive Speed has become important of late. Defensive Speed is the idea that a controlling deck needs to be able to affect the board in the early stages of the game in order to ensure getting to the late stages.
Traditionally, this was done with cheap removal. Now, it's more about the cheap creatures. You simply have to affect the board in the early stages of current Limited, even if your goal is to get to the late game.
Two-mana creatures are the primary way to do this, but I've seen a surge in two other types of creatures of late as well.
Small creatures with deathtouch have gone up in my estimation.
These annoying one-drops can trade way up and can present puzzling scenarios for your opponent. When to offer trades, when to suck it up and just blast your four-drop into a small deathtouch creature, and when to use clunky removal on them are all difficult-to-navigate scenarios.
Small deathtouch creatures offer great Defensive Speed.
Low- (or 0)-power and high-toughness creatures have crept up my scale of late as well. Often, these only cost a few mana, and they can block creatures way above their pay grade.
Again, if you are trying to be a control deck, you need to affect the board early. You are less likely to have your wall killed, and they even block through some combat tricks. While not exciting, cards like this may be an important part of building a control deck with enough Defensive Speed to hang with a solid aggressive deck.
It's weird how hard it is to notice such a big change. It happens slowly, over sets and blocks and years. But sometimes you wake up and Doom Blade is an uncommon and Pacifism has gone the way of the saber-toothed tiger.
Our job is to adjust. Simply sticking to the same heuristics and tools that we always have isn't going to cut it. The bread must be tossed out along with all the other antiquated ideas we had from the Doom Blade Days.
Onward, I say.
Until next week!