A few articles ago, I wrote about how much I like core set Limited. One of the great things about it is how well it unveils the core building blocks of a set. Creatures, removal, bombs, and other unique effects are all easier to see within the square frame of a core set. The first place I usually look after any new set is released is the removal. The removal suite strongly influences the speed of the format and even which archetypes are available.
Creatures are the most important permanent type in Limited. Creatures are what keep you alive and what win you the game. Creatures can be both proactive and reactive. They can even switch roles during a game. But creatures are plentiful and removal is not. This is what makes removal at a premium in Limited. It's not that removal is better than creatures, it's just that there is less of it running around.
How the removal stacks up against the most-often-played creatures in a format is key. Certain types of removal work well against certain types of creatures. Generally speaking, cheap removal kills cheap creatures and expensive removal kills any creature. When we talk about removal, we talk about how "conditional" the removal is. In Limited formats of yore, nearly unconditional removal was often printed at common. These days, removal of this caliber is either expensive, sorcery speed, or rare. Gone are the days of Doom Blades and Lightning Bolts.
It's useful to break down removal into broad categories so we can get the best wide-angle viewpoint on the tools we will have available.
Truly premium removal is as cheap, as unconditional, and as instant-speed as possible. The expectation on premium removal is that it kills creatures that cost more mana than it does. Spending two mana to kill a six-mana creature is one of the most powerful plays you can make in Limited. Reasonably costed removal spells capable of easy two-for-ones also fit in this category.
Fair removal has similarities to premium removal, but usually one aspect is missing. You will often pay about the same amount of mana as the creature you're targeting. You won't feel like you are doing anything broken but you will be glad you had the removal spell in hand. Sometimes, this type of removal can be inexpensive to cast but requires certain conditions to be cast.
Mediocre removal is removal that often costs more to cast than the creature it's targeting. Mediocre removal is usually used as a last resort and is rarely picked early in a draft. Mediocre removal is expensive, unwieldy, and clunky. You'd rather not run mediocre removal, but occasionally it will make your final 23 cards.
Super-conditional removal is so narrow that there will be times when there isn't even a legal target for it on the battlefield. This type of removal is usually relegated to the sideboard, but occasionally will find a home in the main deck. Super-conditional removal is almost never a high pick and is easy to get your hands on.
The challenge is on us to work within the constraints of the modern Limited landscape. Recently, we have seen sets almost completely devoid of truly premium removal. The best stuff has been rarity-shifted upwards as well. See Doom Blade in Magic 2014 as a recent example. In Magic 2010, Magic 2011, and Magic 2012 it was printed at common. In Magic 2014, it's an uncommon.
If this shift in design philosophy is here to stay, it's on us to adjust. Let's take a look at Magic 2015 and see how the removal package breaks down. Will we see Pacifisms and Doom Blades? Or will it be Divine Verdicts and Assassinates?
Here is how I have the removal roughed out:
M15 Premium Removal
It's unclear if Ulcerate will stay in the premium removal camp or slip downward. If the format is particularly quick or if the 3 life proves too much to pay, it will slip down. It's hard to argue with the stats on the card for that price, though.
Cone of Flame can be tricky to resolve, as you need three legal targets for it, but given that it can hit players, it's usually not an issue. (Remember, in a pinch, you can target yourself with 1 damage.) The exciting possibility for the ultra-rare Limited three-for-one is enough to land it in Premiumtown.
Lightning Strike is the current representative for the Bolt Slot. There is always a cheap-ish, red, instant burn spell in these sets. Lightning Strike is miles away from actual Lightning Bolt, but it's still an efficient removal spell when you need to take out the early- and midgame threats your opponent provides.
Stoke the Flames is instant speed and can kill all but the biggest threats. The flexibly offered by convoke plus the ability to aim directly at your opponent's life total make this a potent burn spell worth keeping your eye on.
M15 Fair Removal
Devouring Light is too conditional to be considered premium removal, but it looks like a solid role player. I expect to play with and against many of these throughout Magic 2015's run.
Encrust is where the blue removal has landed. Blue, as a color, almost never gets the ability to just outright kill a creature. Cards like Encrust lend flexibility and power to blue, because that's what it needs more of. Don't forget, you can use it on artifacts as well.
Flesh to Dust is a perfect card to define fair removal. It's five mana—not cheap—but it's going to get the job done. I love that it's instant speed as well, as this level of removal is sometimes slotted as a sorcery. This is the kind of spell you'll usually want one of in your deck, with the second one being less welcome.
Stab Wound is a premium card, but it just doesn't fall in the premium removal camp. See, it's not only sorcery speed, but also doesn't kill many of the big bombs in the format. Additionally, it sits on the battlefield and can be destroyed on a later turn. Still, Stab Wound as a card is a potential win condition, which goes well beyond what a normal removal spell can claim. It's a high pick, and a great card because of what it does as a whole.
Heat Ray is another prime example of a fair removal spell. You will almost always overpay to kill something, but you'll be glad you had the chance. The fact that it's an instant is a big deal as well, potentially opening the door for two-for-ones.
Covenant of Blood has a hefty mana cost, but that is reduced somewhat by the existence of convoke. Still, it's seven mana to start with and will often require you tapping your blockers or attackers on your turn. That said, when you do, it's a big swing. Killing a creature and gaining 4 life is huge. Killing your opponent and not bothering to gain the 4 life is even better.
M15 Mediocre Removal
Oppressive Rays impressed when it was paired with a low-curve, aggressive deck, but otherwise proved unexciting. I did enjoy playing it on utility creatures (utility creatures are creatures that rarely attack or block, but instead give you value from activated abilities), but overall it really only shines in one type of deck: aggressive.
Pillar of Light is a strange take on an instant-speed white removal spell. It cares about the opposing creature's toughness? I haven't done a search yet for what this hits, but my guess is that it will be a fairly narrow band of threats. I predict having this stuck in your hand a lot of the time.
Chronostutter counts as removal, as instead of merely returning a creature to its owner's hand, Chronostutter puts it a couple of cards down into its owner's library. The real sticking point with this Griptide-like card is the mana cost. Six is a lot of mana, and considering that this doesn't permanently deal with the big threat, we are talking about a mediocre removal spell to be sure. One cool thing to keep an eye out for if you do end up running one is waiting until your opponent has some type of shuffle effect on the stack, and then firing off your Chronostutter.
Turn to Frog can deal with some threats that are nearly impossible to deal with otherwise. The real problem with it is that it can't reach out and kill something on the opposing battlefield. It requires some type of combat to be happening to make it really work, which is why it's relegated to the group of sometimes-playables.
Crippling Blight doesn't have enough of an effect on the game as a whole to be considered anything other than mediocre. That said, in the right build, it goes from benchwarmer to all-star. Mainly, it's great at clearing the way for attackers. The list of what it outright kills will bump it up or down a notch as well.
Blastfire Bolt costs six mana, making it a tough sell as anything other than mediocre. It has the random side ability to get a two-for-one if your opponent has equipped the target with some Equipment, but that won't come up often enough to justify being excited to run this clunky removal spell.
Hunt the Weak costs four mana, requires a creature on your side to be within an eyelash of the creature it wants to kill, and is a sorcery that must target your own creature (this is bad because if the creature gets killed in response, you just got two-for-oned). It doesn't have a lot going for it. In green, you take what you can get for removal and this looks to be the best option.
Meteorite is a cool design that also technically fits under the removal category. Looking at just that side of this otherworldly coin, we see that it's five colorless mana to do 2 damage. Not a good deal. As a card, it's interesting because of its other ability, but for the purposes of this article it's mediocre as heck.
M15 Super-Conditional Removal
Giving green the ability to fire off a cheap, instant-speed way to kill huge scary Dragon bombs is great. However, there are many times where you won't have a target at all for your Plummet and it rots in your hand. This is unacceptable. We have to pay extra attention to the number of targets from each color before we consider main-decking a Plummet. It has happened, though, and when it does, Plummet is sweet.
Shrapnel Blast is hyper efficient in terms of mana cost, but the extra cost of not only having an artifact, but also sacrificing it, will usually be too much to bear for a normal Limited deck.
As you can see, the trend has continued toward more fair and mediocre removal, and less premium removal. I like it. I mainly like this because it makes the actual draft portion more interesting. In the old days, if you opened a premium removal spell, you felt obligated to take it. These days, you can have reasonable draft debates between quality threats and medium-strength removal. There will be times when it's correct to take the threat, and times when it's correct to take the removal as well.
After the set is finally in our hands, we will look even deeper into which of these cards moved up or down on our list (and they will). This will depend on which colors or strategies are deemed the strongest.
I hope this helps you with your Prerelease event and the subsequent tournaments that follow!
Until next week.