Pattern Recognition #40 - Removal

Opinion Pattern Recognition


17 August 2017


Hello everyone! My name is berryjon, and I am's resident Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass! I write Pattern Recognition, a series of articles that talk about Magic's history, its present and its future. I'll even shoehorn in a reference to the Time Spiral block if I can! Because I can. ;)

Today's article is the result of an offhand comment from an article a couple weeks back, one that I've heard before, and while I know it is true, I also know that it is equally false! I've even pointed out during my story time in previous articles where someone told me this truism, so I decided to screw that, and ignore it and came out the better for that.

So, what is this Truism? What is it that is so endemic in the game that people disparage choice because of it? So bad, that Mark Rosewater himself has tried to take steps to alleviate through positive measures.

Everything dies to Removal.

Yeah. Screw that.

For the new players, removal is a card that, oddly enough, removes another card from the battlefield. It goes all the way back to Terror, although that's not the only colour or the only method to do so with. I am referring in this case to Instants or Soerceries that "Destroy Target..." or words to that effect, in case there is some doubt as to what I'm talking about.

From a historical perspective, each colour has a different way to remove permanents from the board, as well as favourite targets 's historical context for removal has been directed at combat interactions. If you don't believe me, look at cards like Ballista Squad or Gideon's Reproach. The idea is that White is the colour to punish activity and encourage passivity, something it sort of shares with Blue.

And thanks to Planar Chaos, we get Sunlance, which skips the damage part. And outside of my favourite block, we also see cards like Swords to Plowshares from ye olde days, where things were different.

White is also a traditional opponent to Enchantments and Artifacts, as cards like Disenchant will tell you. In fact, White has a massive love-hate relationship with Enchantments. Love them as long as they are theirs, but hate them when they are someone elses'. A Tempest of Light when losses can be ... acceptable.

's version of removal is twofold really. And while there are hundreds of examples, I would like to cite two specific cards. Boomerang and Counterspell. Both of these Instants are the two sides to the coin of Blue's Control, and how they dominated the game for years.

Blue removes cards by either returning from the battlefield to a player's hand - or more rarely their library or by simply denying the card in the first place.

Let's be honest with ourselves here. The ability to bounce (return to hand) cards is powerful as it sets back an opponent a turn's worth of resources or more. But counterspells? That's where Blue's real power is at. The ability deny a card from entering the battlefield in the first place. The ability just say NO, and mean it.

Blue doesn't even give you a chance to do something with your cards before they're gone. And they aren't picky about what they take out. Everyone and everything is fair game!

straddles the difference between Red and White. They like to deal damage, either through the archetypal Drain Life or the more modern Consume Spirit. This is something they share with Red but also combine with white's life gain to make something different. In fact, you can combine and in Lightning Helix where Black can do by themselves.

On the other hand, Black is also quite willing to just skip over the whole numbers thing and Go for the Throat. Black is the undisputed King of just wiping a creature out, regardless of numbers involved.

But there is a downside to this. Black is ridiculously good at killing creatures. But what they are second-good at, without needing the help of another colour is in taking out lands. Surprising for something that is assumed to be the domain of Red and White. Maw of the Mire and Poison the Well and Rain of Tears.

On the other hand, asking them to take out an Enchantment or an Artifact? Yeah, not happening.

is all about the numbers where removing creatures are concerned. From Lightning Bolt to Demon-Fire, Red wants to go big with the numbers. Of course, I dedicated an entire article to how this is a hindrance to the whole of Red's identity way back when I talked about Chandra Naalar, so I suggest you go back and read that one for a more in-depth look at why the focus on numbers is bad.

Red is also really good at taking out Artifacts. Shatter, Abrade, By Force.... Red loves to hate on artifacts, but at the same time, loves to work with them, if Daretti, Scrap Savant's commander deck is any indication.

But what Red is really known for, given that most people have accepted red's love of direct damage, is their ability to destroy lands. Seriously. Stone Rain, Demolish, Vandalize.... Red absolutely loves to take out lands. Enough so that Wizards has been loathe to print any card that can destroy a land that costs less than four mana for years now. And don't even think about multiple lands!

's ability to remove individual cards has been third rate at best. The only mono-green card that I can recall off the top of my head to act as removal before the 'fight' mechanic became a thing was Creeping Mold.

And now that I think about it, I recall that Disenchant got colourshifted into Naturalize. Along with a lot of Enchantment hate. Tranquility, Druid Lyrist, and others all show off that Green really doesn't like that sort of thing.

Very rarely though, they'll move into Land hate, with Mwonvuli Acid-Moss for example.

Green wasn't big on direct removal, instead going with the old standby of solving the problems caused by opponents creatures by having bigger and meaner creatures.

So naturally, they get cards like Epic Confrontation, Hunt the Hunter and cards to that effect. Have two creatures go after each other in a chance to see who will emerge victorious in a game of Survival of the Fittest.

But if there is one thing that Green really hates, and goes out of their way to destroy and remove, it's creatures with flying. I'm serious. Eaten by Spiders, Plummet, Wing Snare.... This is a response to their traditional enemy, Blue, having lots of creatures with flying, and needing more than just Spiders and Elves with Reach to defend against them.

Of course, Removal can't be the be-all, end-all of things. There has to be someway to prevent or mitigate the damage done from removal. And there is! A couple, actually.

The first is what are called "Blink Effects", named after Blinking Spirit. This is the ability to protectively remove a permanent from the battlefield, often back to your hand in order to avoid it hitting the graveyard. A more powerful version is found on cards like Ghostway, which removes your cards (in this case, creatures) from the game, then brings them back without further work on your part.

And then, earlier this week, something amazing happened. Something that caused my brain to lurch in shock that it would see the light of day ever again.

Teferi's Protection.


Alright, that's it. I'm pushing my Banding article forward. It's time to talk about the other rule that was too complex to go onto cards now. Or rather, soon.

The other passive response is Hexproof and Shroud. And to a more limited extent, Protection. These two keyworded abilities act as blanket defences against spot removal. And they do that by simply preventing those cards or abilities from aiming at the target in the first place.

Now, while I appreciate the simplicity of the mechanics involved, I am worried that their use is problematic of a much larger problem that extends past Magic itself. The concept of the Silver Bullet. The idea that there is something that can magically (pun not intended) act directly against another card or style and act as a hard counter to it.

I've played Star Trek: The CCG by Decipher Inc. This is no secret. That game system was absolutely riddled with Silver Bullets at all levels. I know them when I see them. Hell, just ask some other people about the efforts to kill the Horga'hn. I'll be too busy being driven to drink by the memories.

Hexproof and Shroud are a wider net being cast against spot removal. And part of the problem is that while they do appear, the balancing act between appearing too much and appearing too little has fallen on the too little side, at least in my opinion. And the worst part is, I can completely understand that decision! If there is too much protection, the value (and I'm not talking about the dollars here) of spot removal drops.

Now you may be thinking, "Well, why doesn't Wizards print more cards that have Hexproof or Shroud, then start printing cards that bypass that?"

Three words.

New. World. ORDER. Added complexity for no additional benefit to the game. And down that road lies recursion and madness. Let's not go there. Ever.

Yes, I know Demonfire's ability to prevent damage prevention exists, but that's not the same thing. It's in response to a certain degree of White's ability to shrug off damage, and not a larger problem of targeting.

And yet, Removal doesn't have to be specific in nature. Everything I've talked about just now can and has been scaled up.

Disenchant becomes Purify.

Terror becomes Damnation.

Boomerang becomes Evacuation.

Shatter becomes Shatterstorm.

Mass removal is perhaps the tipping point in the problem I'm talking about in this article. The idea that "Everything Dies" is true, as there are ways to take out any permanent in many colours.

The change in emphasis from "dies" to "Everything" is where things go horribly, horribly wrong.

I've talked about card advantage before, and mass removal is card advantage writ large. For one card, and a relatively minor cost in mana, you can blow out whole swathes of your opponents board state (and even your own, but you're prepared for that, right?).

Hell, I've seen some of our Commander playgroups here on (you are watching them, right?), openly admit that they expect someone to wipe the board on turn 4 with a Wrath of God or Damnation or the like. And the printing of Bontu's Last Stand, a three mana wipe, was seen as meta-affecting!

Go talk to those guys. And watch their videos and streams. They can give a better perspective on multi-player removal than I can.

But you know what? Removal is powerful, I give you that. But there is a corollary to the truism that "Everything dies to removal."

That being "When everything dies to removal, nothing will."

A player playing with removal spells - usually as an aspect of the Control in their deck - needs to leave room for their ability to win, which in turns needs a certain degree of redundancy and support in order to work properly. A deck that doesn't run the same degree of control, or whose ability to invoke spot removal has alternate uses - Lightning Bolt going for a creature, player or Planeswalker being a good example - can save more space for actually winning.

And their ability to put out cards exceeds the removal. They come out ahead. As I like to tell people about some of my aggro decks, "There is no win condition in this deck. The deck is the win condition." And yes, I've even met players who couldn't wrap their heads around the fact that I didn't care if they cast Doom Blade on my Gisela, Blade of Goldnight. It was just a card. A nice one to have, sure, but not vital to my deck's ability to win.

Mutliplayer can throw this balance even more out of balance. How can one deck put down two or more? Can two removal decks get locked into a mutual spiral of demolition while other decks safely navigate between them to victory?

It's a delicate balance, and as spot removal loses out on the scaling, mass removal becomes even more effective.

Because of this, there's no real easy path to making sure removal works out all that well. Creatures already get blasted by it enough that there has been a concerted effort by Rosewater to make Creatures more powerful. A losing proposition when cards like Fatal Push get printed.

But on the other hand, they can't scale back removal either. Otherwise boardstates can get clogged up and games stall out. Bad for players and tournaments. And spot removal can also help the game along by removing keystones, forcing players to interact with each other rather than building up their combos or what not in peace.

There is no real answer, except to have a rotating balance, trusting in the stability of Standard to phase in and out problem cards and their solutions, as well as the aggregate power level of Modern / Legacy / Commander to act as a dampener on such things.

Join me next week when I talk about a horrible failure and confusing rules, such that when the opportunity to reprint the cards came up, they got the axe almost instantly.

Until then, I'm selling out! Or is that tapping out? Visit my Patreon page, and see if you want to help me out. Basic donors get a preview copy of the final article, while advanced donors get that as well as the opportunity to join me in a podcast version of the series where I talk and you respond.

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #39 - Upkeep The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #41 - Licids

Myr_Mythic says... #1

Another splendid article. I am very much looking forward to your next article.

August 17, 2017 12:17 p.m.

berryjon says... #2

Feedback from another forum, from Keres171:

Didn't actually mention Wrath Effects here. Since aren't a scale up of an effect white gets individually and their extreme historical importance, they should probably go here.
White still gets Sword to Plowshares effects as part of its colour pie. (Declaration in Stone)
Mention sunlance despite it being a Planar Chaos card from out of the colour pie. And not Pacifism variant which are in colour pie...
Didn't mention Oblivion Ring variants. At all.Or white skills at exile. And destroying tapped stuff.White strength is that can remove every type of permanent except for land (which it can deal with only via Armageddon effect. Despite what you say in black, white is the worst and taking out lands out all the colours as the others can destroy them and blue can steal them/turn them into islands.)

You didn't mention Control Magic effects. Or tapdown Auras.

You started off with draining effects instead creature destruction. And put black's speciality as the number colour of creature at the end.
You didn't mention blacks ability to destroy planeswalkers.You ignored both sacrifice effects and -x/-x effects.Didn't mention the
Black skill at destroying lands isn't surprising. It's had since Alpha.

Green gets "destroy target non-creature permanent" and can destroy every non-creature type. Since you defined removal to apply to every card type and not just every creature type, the claim "green's skill at removal is third rate at best" is utterly wrong.
Green gets Rootgrapple, is number 2 at Planeswalker destruction, and gets no shortage of removal effects, often stapled onto creatures.
"And now that I think of it" is unprofessional, especially when it concerns a colour pie change that occurred during the original Mirrodin block. Do your Research!
Since green regular gets common land destruction, now at a greater frequency that black, it's land hate isn't "rare".Also didn't add the new one sided fight effects green now gets (Savage Bite).

Should probably have include temporary indestructibility, as well as its historical processors regeneration and temporary protection. They're a lot more relevant that Blinking effects.

Silver Bulllets
You did mention the actual silver bullet towards Hexproof, forced sacrifice effects. (Celestial Flare, To the Slaughter.). Which actually can be printed at common under NWO.
Also low level mass removal exists at uncommon under NWO.NWO not at fault. (Pestilence at common makes horrible limited.)
If you print cards that ignore target like Demonfire does for damage prevention, well Yugioh did that. All it did was make untargetability worthless as a protection effect since you could silver bullet your way through it.
Mass removal, is not a problem in most formats. In Standard boardwipes were unplayable, in Modern they can be played around. Wizards recently bumped the cost of al future Wrath effect to five mana, making them effectively unplayable in standard.
"There are wrong answers, there are no wrong threats" isn't a new idea in MtG being around since Tempest block with the invention of Slight.
The push to make creatures more powerful worked.
Fatal push really doesn't nesccarily make creatures a "losing proposition". Especially against a turn four Emrakul.Wizards actually scaled back removal in standard. Which resulted in multiple bans within a year and creatures being king. Entire articles have written on this.
On a related note ignore the Exile trumping indestructibility as a silver bullet, which would be a fun tangent.

An Antithesis:
Creatures with ETB effects get around removal, as do must kill equally cheap threats (My Gofy trade with your terror.)
Bomb Mythics with powerful etb or continuous effects that let them trade 2-1 for 1 with removal effectively made 1-1 removal obsolete in standard.
Five mana Wraths are effectively unplayable in standard and modern due to Aggro decks being so fast or so good at recovery to make them worthless.
'Balanced/Situation' Silver Bullet removal spells don't work due to danger of not being drawn at the right time.Standard was dominated not be control decks, but bomb rares that took over the game by themselves and deck built to support them since there weren't answers/ (e.g. Aetherworks Marvel, Saheli, Gideon, Ulamog).

Lots of points there. There's no real way for me to break them down to address point by point, except to say that he/she is quite right, and I missed quite a lot. I may just throw this onto the "Re-write Pile" and break it down colour by color next time.

August 17, 2017 7:02 p.m.

Holtzman says... #3

Damn you berryjon for spending your free time writing an interesting article and not being exactly correct on everything.


August 17, 2017 9:46 p.m.

berryjon says... #4

I don't mind people pointing out where I get things wrong. First, this is an opinion piece, rather than some factual dry discourse. It allows people to engage me in more detail on things I have missed, and in doing so allows me and everyone else to improve.

I merely posted the other person's problems in order to generate discourse, rather than Stifle it.

August 17, 2017 9:49 p.m.

I respect your ability to take criticisms berryjon, and Removal is a huge topic to tackle, especially with limited writing time and research time. It would take a novel to truly hit on every point about Removal in MTG, as every color has a long an illustrious relationship with removal, what it likes to remove, what it struggles to remove, how much it costs, how it removes, outlier cards, the many shifts in the overall direction of the game have almost always had an immediate impact on how removal is handled for each color, especially in development.

I mean just looking at Disenchant vs Naturalize, Disenchant was only ever even printed in one modern-legal set: Time Spiral. Even there it still had the old border, the only modern-border printing of Disenchant is the Conspiracy Take the Crown printing, which is relatively recent. Naturalize on the other hand first saw printing in Onslaught, and then continued to see print across every damn core set, and even a couple of expansions. It seems clear to me that Naturalize wasn't just a color-shift of Disenchant, it was a replacement. WotC had decided that artifact/enchant destroy was a Green thing now. White still has enchantment removal quite often, cards like Erase, Deicide, etc. But artifact destroy is firmly a Green/Red thing. Oxidize puts Shatter to shame.

Removal is constantly changing as the game changes. I remember spending years upon years playing this game, wishing that Murder was a thing. Not being able to hit Black creatures or artifact creatures with Terror sucked. But by the time we got Murder? It sucked. There is far better removal than that now. In fact, looking back on it, it seems silly that we ever even used Terror. What a garbage card, right? Times change, removal changes.

August 22, 2017 2:39 p.m.

This (vaguely) reminds me of an article I wrote a couple years ago about the different forms removal can take.

It's funny, I saw Teferi's Protection but didn't really clue into the implications. I thought "oh yeah, cool, it's phasing" without immediately after thinking "wait, it's been 20 years since they've printed anything with phasing!" Charming to see a nod after all this time!

August 22, 2017 6:37 p.m.

berryjon says... #7

ClockworkSwordfish: 14 years actually.

Tyrant-Thanatos: We played with Terror because there was literally nothing else!

August 22, 2017 7:16 p.m.

berryjon yup. That's exactly what I was trying to get at. As creatures have grown stronger and more efficient, removal has grown stronger and more efficient. I don't like to use the term, but "power creep" is part of the game evolving and changing with the times.

August 22, 2017 7:41 p.m.

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