Being able to interact with an opponent's creatures in a meaningful way is essential to success in today's metagame. Once upon a time, when most of the creatures were awful and took a long time to win, a player could get away with just putting four Lightning Bolts or a playset of Swords to Plowshares in their deck and call it a day, but that has changed with Wizards' push toward the combat phase in recent years. Not only do we lack a universal removal spell like Swords to Plowshares or its most recent approximation, Path to Exile, we are also faced with a wide variety of threats that demand different types of removal in order to gain value.
All removal today needs to be evaluated through four different lenses: CawBlade and its [card Sword of Feast and Famine]Swords[/card], early threats such as Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman that can dominate a game without attacking from decks like Jumanji and RUG, the swarms of early attackers from Boros or Elves!, and the Titans of Valakut. Each of these requires a different set of removal spells to effectively engage because they attack from different angles. Due to the incredible power level of creatures these days, having the wrong removal spell can easily result in a game loss.
Against CawBlade's Squadron Hawks and Sword of Feast and Famines sweepers are less than stellar. CawBlade can provide a steady stream of attackers due to the Hawks and can force an opponent to trade one for one with removal due to their Swords, putting sorcery speed sweepers in a bad position. CawBlade also has either Creeping Tar Pit or Celestial Colonnade, in addition to Gideon Jura, both of which can carry a Sword without fear of cards like Slagstorm or Day of Judgment.
Against CawBlade instant speed removal is best, as it can deal with equipped creatures, activated manlands, or Gideon. Tumble Magnet is also quite good against the Swords.
The second way to evaluate removal is to look at its effectiveness against Fauna Shaman and Lotus Cobra. Both of these creatures are incredibly powerful and can run away with a game if they come out early and are not answered. The Shaman can search up a surge of [card Vengevine]hasty plants[/card] that make most removal spells lose a large portion of their value, while the Cobra can accelerate out threats such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Inferno Titan before the other player is ready to deal with them. Both of these can do significant damage before sweepers come online, and tapping out on turn four to deal with a two-drop is a poor deal.
Instant speed removal is the best option for fighting against these threats.
Quick decks like Boros and Elves! are both vulnerable to targeted removal, but sweepers are your best option. Killing a Steppe Lynx pumped by two landfall triggers or an Elvish Archdruid in response to attackers is a great feeling and can be a significant boost in the game, but these decks are resilient and have a large number of threats. Buying a turn with a targeted removal spell is certainly good, but you are going to need to use that time to cast an important, game altering spell, or you can still be run over.
Sweepers are what I want to see more than anything else against these decks. Targeted removal is also good, but it is mostly useful for buying time to resolve something else important, like a Titan or a sweeper, rather than an end unto itself.
The last way I examine removal is by thinking about its value against Valakut. Valakut seems to be more nebulous at the moment than any of the other popular decks. It can feature Lotus Cobra and Overgrown Battlement for ramp, or be more traditional and spell based. Every build will feature four Primeval Titans, but their additional fatties can vary widely. Inferno Titan is the current choice for many players, but Avenger of Zendikar is still favored by some, and I have seen Precursor Golem and Wurmcoil Engine generate some discussion as well.
Targeted removal such as Go for the Throat is quite good here, as it can deal with early mana producers to slow down the Valakut player, or later it can handle a larger threat. Damage-based sweepers are not particularly exciting, as they can clear out a Lotus Cobra or the tokens from a Avenger of Zendikar if the Valakut player was not playing around them, but they do not address Primeval Titan or an Avenger if the Valakut player plays around the sweeper. Additionally, because sweepers are all sorcery speed, they leave you open to an end-of-turn Summoning Trap.
VS CawBlade: Oust is not a winner. It trades one for one with a deck that gains significant amount of card advantage, particularly from its creatures. Bouncing a Stoneforge Mystic is a miserable proposition, even if it was an instant. If larger creatures such as Baneslayer Angel start to see more play in CawBlade it could become more effective, but as long as the only creatures being played are Squadron Hawks and Stoneforge Mystics Oust will be less than amazing.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: This is where Oust shines. Oust can effectively answer these threats before they do any damage, even if you are on the draw. They will be back later on, but by then you will have had more time to mount your defenses. Even if they go unanswered the second time around they are significantly less scary on turn four than turn two. A turn two Cobra threatens a turn three Inferno Titan, while a turn four Cobra only threatens a turn five Titan-which is the same as an Explorer's Scope. A turn two Fauna Shaman can lead to two Vengevines attacking as early as turn four, but a turn four Shaman means turn five or six Vengevines, which means you have had time to deploy some blockers or a Gideon Jura for defense.
VS Swarms (Boros/Elves!): Oust is quite good here as well. Against Elves! you can slow their mana production long enough to make it a fair game, and in the later game it is a removal spell even if they have an Eldrazi Monument out. The difference between a turn two and a turn three Elvish Archdruid is hard to overstate and Ousting a turn one Llanowar Elf or the like is a play I am quite happy with.
Boros has several creatures with Haste that make the sorcery speed Oust a little worse, but it is still good. I would usually prefer to Oust a Plated Geopede or Steppe Lynx than Goblin Guide, and their only other Haste creature is [card]Hero of Oxid Ridge[card]. The Hero is often the most threatening creature that Boros can play, but stemming the bleeding early can reduce his effectiveness quite a bit. The possibility of a Hero landing on the other side of the board is much more worrying when you are at eight than sixteen, because it is unlikely he will threaten lethal at that point.
VS Valakut: Oust is good against the creature-based ramp builds of Valakut that are playing with Overgrown Battlement and Lotus Cobra, but not nearly as impressive against those that prefer Harrow and friends. It is never bad, as dealing with a Titan, whether [card Primeval Titan]Primeval[/card] or [card Inferno Titan]Inferno[/card] for two turns can be enough time for you to find a more permanent answer, kill them, or mill away the offender with a Sword of Body and Mind. The only time it is just awful is if they are playing with a Avenger of Zendikar and have played a land before you get a chance to play your Oust.
VS CawBlade: As with Oust, one-for-one-ing a creature that has gained value upon resolution with a sorcery speed card is fairly unexciting. It is much better against cards like Baneslayer Angel, Sun Titan, or Hero of Bladehold. There has a been a recent trend towards going large in CawBlade to beat the mirror, and if this continues the Journey could be an excellent choice in limited numbers to deal with opposing Titans and their ilk.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: I have been playing with two copies of Journey in my UW CawBlade specifically to deal with these two problems. Barring an exceptionally poor draw with only lands that enter the battlefield tapped, Journey to Nowhere should be able to answer these questions before they have a chance to wreak any havoc, even if you are on the draw. In the later game it can also deal with a Vengevine, which is sure to be present in any Fauna Shaman deck.
VS Swarms: Similar to Oust. It is good to have a cheap early removal spell before sweepers come online, but the sorcery speed aspect is a problem. Getting rid of a Plated Geopede or similar could be worth it, however. I would not sideboard the Journey against these decks, but if it was already in the sideboard to handle other problems there is a good chance it would come in here.
VS Valakut: I like the Journey here quite a bit, more than Oust. It is equally effective in the early game against their mana producers, but it can answer a later game Titan more effectively because you do not need another answer in order to avoid seeing the same Titan again. It fails against Avenger of Zendikar, as does all spot removal, but Journey to Nowhere also has a vulnerability to Acidic Slime. Given that most Valakut players are moving from Avenger of Zendikar to Inferno Titan these days, this is not such a worry as to make it unplayable.
VS CawBlade: Condemn is the best spot removal available to white when fighting against CawBlade. It can stop a Sword of Feast and Famine from connecting, allowing for a significant swing in tempo, particularly if the opponent tapped out for a spell in their first main phase and was counting on being unable to untap later in their turn. It is still a loss of card advantage if it is dealing with a Squadron Hawk or Stoneforge Mystic, but it is still better than letting the Sword connect because then you would be out a card anyway. It is also the only spell that White has that can handle either an animated Gideon Jura or Creeping Tar Pit/Celestial Colonnade.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: Condemn is miserable here because neither of these needs to attack to do its damage. It is possible to catch a Lotus Cobra off guard, but not likely, and certainly not against the best players. Condemn can answer a Vengevine better than most removal spells, but if the Shaman remains unscathed it will be back in a matter of time.
VS Swarm: Condemn is quite good against any aggressive deck. It deals with early Goblin Guides, gets rid of Elf lords even if an Eldrazi Monument is in play, and can "destroy" a Bloodghast quite well without even triggering a Kalastria Highborn.
VS Valakut: As with Shamans and Cobras, Condemn is quite poor against creatures that don't attack. It can not answer any of the problem mana producers in the early game, and while it can get rid of a Titan it will not be until it has gotten at least two copies of its enters-the-battlefield/attacks benefit, making this a losing proposition.
VS Swarm: Unsurprisingly, Day shines against decks that plan to attack with many creatures at once. This is where you want to rip your DoJs. It is possible for Boros to recover with Squadron Hawks and or Koth of the Hammer, Elves! can have an Eldrazi Monument in play by the time you get to Day of Judgment mana, and Vampires can fireball you with a Kalastria Highborn, but barring the perfect circumstances for them they will be in a world of hurt.
VS Valakut: While too slow to effectively answer early mana producing creatures, the Day can clear away Titans without letting them get in more than one trigger. This makes it slightly worse than Journey to Nowhere, except that Day of Judgment is the only good answer to a resolved Avenger of Zendikar if they are still playing that.
VS CawBlade: Doom Blade is quite good against CawBlade in some ways, and lacking in others. It can kill any creature other than Creeping Tar Pit in response to it being equipped by Sword of Feast and Famine, including Gideon Jura, which makes it quite useful. If it is drawn after a creature is equipped by the Sword, however, it is next to useless. The ability to make a CawBlade player twice the mana they were expecting to equip their creature with a Sword can be quite a tempo boost and removing an opposing Gideon Jura can easily turn a game, but I remain skeptical of running Black removal against a deck that features a Protection from Black Sword so prominently in its plans.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: Here Doom Blade is everything you could ask for, and some cookies. Its instant speed status lets it remove either the Shaman or Cobra at the end of the turn, before they have a chance to do any damage, if you are on the play. If you are on the draw you can still interact with either two-drop before they become active, you will just be tapped out on the opponent's third turn.
VS Swarm: Again, Doom Blade shines. None of the most widely played aggressive decks are Black, which makes Doom Blade's drawback negligible. Being able to kill any creature, large or small, at instant speed is a huge plus against any aggressive deck. It can answer Boros' most threatening creature, Hero of Oxid Ridge before it can do any damage by stopping it before it is ever declared as an attacker, or kill a Mountain animated by Koth of the Hammer.
VS Valakut: Doom Blade is also good against Valakut. It can take out any mana producers in the early game, or a Titan in the late game before it can attack to gain its second ETB trigger.
Same as above, with a few footnotes. It is better against CawBlade because it can kill a Creeping Tar Pit while Doom Blade can not. If anyone playing the Black splash in CawBlade has decided to go big with Grave Titan, Geth, Lord of the Vault, or another option, Go for the Throat will again shine. It is worse against RUG if they are playing with Precursor Golem, or the mono Blue Grand Architect deck in the late game, but Doom Blade-ing a Wurmcoil Engine is hardly a great deal anyway.
VS CawBlade: Disfigure can take out any of the eight common creatures at instant speed for less mana than any other option, which is a plus. It has the same vulnerabilities against Sword of Feast and Famine as any other black removal spell, but can not deal with a Celestial Colonnade or Gideon Jura. It can, however, kill an animated Creeping Tar Pit. In total, Disfigure may not be dead against CawBlade, but it is not likely to be sideboarded in against it unless you are playing an aggressive deck that intends to win quickly - before the weakness to [card Gideon Jura]Gideon[/card] can come into play.
VS Swarm: Disfigure is a large enough effect to kill Plated Geopede or Steppe Lynx if they have only one landfall trigger on the stack, or if you play it as a sorcery, but if they play a fetchland like Arid Mesa you will not be able to kill their creature unless they are exceedingly bad at stacking their triggers. It is still useful against other creatures, however. Disfigure can kill a Goblin Guide or Hero of Oxid Ridge before they can connect, as well as Stoneforge Mystic or Spikeshot Elder.
-2/-2 is large enough to hurt against any of the other aggressive decks, killing off Elves as long as there is only one Lord in play, any frequently played Vampire, and Signal Pest.
Disfigure is a good sideboard card because of its cheap mana cost and ability to answer a number of problems, but its weakness against Valakut and CawBlade mean it probably doesn't belong in the maindeck.
VS CawBlade: Arc Trail will almost always be able to kill of two creatures against CawBlade which makes it a useful tool for gaining some card advantage. The ability to split damage between a creature and a Planeswalker is also useful.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: Two-for-ones are good. Sorcery speed is unfortunate, but the ability to kill off the target and a Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elf, or some other threat is a significant plus.
VS Swarm: Again, the ability to kill of two threats at once is huge. Arc Trail is one of the best possible cards against creature decks if you plan on having creatures of your own in play, which could make sweepers like Pyroclasm awkward. In a deck like Vampires or Boros Arc Trail is a better sideboard card against swarm decks, but if you are planning on playing control then a sweeper is almost always going to be a better pick.
VS Valakut: Arc Trail is close to dead here. The best possible scenario is doming them two and hitting Lotus Cobra for one, but as the Cobra falls from favor Arc Trail is more and more likely to just deal two to the player for two mana a sorcery speed - hardly a bargain.
VS CawBlade: Three damage is enough to kill of any of the commonly played creatures in response to being equipped, as well as enough to kill of a Squadron Hawk after it has been equipped by a Sword of Feast and Famine. Depriving a CawBlade player of an untap they were expecting to get can be quite a nasty surprise, and killing off a Jace, the Mind Sculptor can also be game-breaking.
VS Swarm: Three damage is the key number, as it can kill a Steppe Lynx or Plated Geopede even after a landfall trigger. If they play a regular land you can kill the creature when they attack, and if they play a fetchland you can kill it in response to the sacrifice.
VS Valakut: As with the other burn spells, it is close to dead against Valakut unless you have enough together to make doming their face a viable plan.
VS CawBlade: A sweeper that deals three is quite good against the 'Blade. It can take down most of their creatures, including any birds with equipment. The fact that it can also deal significant damage to a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Gideon Jura is also a plus. It is not a strong enough effect to be worth sideboarding in but it is certainly worth considering in the maindeck.
VS Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra: Slagstorm will be too slow to stop either of these from doing any damage unless you are on the play, but a single turn with Shaman active will not be gamebreaking, as it can only search up a single Vengevine. A single turn with Lotus Cobra active, however, is quite another story. Even if they don't have a fetchland they can drop a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Brainstorm with it, making you choose between killing the Jace and the Cobra with your Slagstorm. If they have a fetchland they get to five mana, which is in range of Acidic Slime, and if they have the nut draw of Explorer's Scope into two fetchlands they can have a turn three Inferno Titan to make your Slagstorm just look silly. This dichotomy makes Slagstorm a much more appealing option against Fauna Shaman than Cobra decks, as it can also take down any Vengevines if they hit play before you get a chance to play/draw your Slagstorm. I would probably sideboard out Slagstorm against Cobra decks and bring it in against Shaman decks.
VS Swarm: A good sweeper, and cheaper to cast than Day of Judgment. It is a good anti-aggro maindeck card, but the difference between two and three damage matters infrequently enough I would prefer Pyroclasm in the board.
VS Valakut: Dead.
VS CawBlade: Two damage can kill off some of the riff-raff, but it isn't enough damage to kill anything that is wearing a Sword, which is what matters most.
VS Swarm: Two damage is enough to kill off almost every aggressive creature seeing play at the moment. If you need an anti-aggro card in your Red deck this should be the first place you look.
VS CawBlade: Volition Reins can be quite powerful against CawBlade if you haven't already lost by the time you have enough mana to cast it. Taking a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Gideon Jura can be gamebreaking. Even taking a Sword of Feast and Famine can have a huge impact on the game. The fact that many people have been advocating going big for the mirror makes Volition Reins even better in game two, which is probably the first time you would want to see it because it is so bad against aggressive decks it probably isn't maindeckable. It is entirely possible to just be dead by the time Reins starts being relevant which means it can not be the only piece of your plan to beat CawBlade, but it can be an important piece of the late game plan.
VS Swarm: Dead
VS Valakut: I wouldn't want to sideboard a Volition Reins specifically for Valakut, but if it was in my sideboard for CawBlade I could easily imagine it being better than something else in the maindeck and sideboarding it in against them. Taking a Titan of any color is quite powerful as it answers the threat without demanding a board sweeper which allows you to continue applying pressure.
VS CawBlade: Into the Roil has started picking up some support recently due to its quality against the 'Blade. Bouncing a Planeswalker of any kind at the end of turn can provide a powerful tempo swing, getting rid of a Sword for a turn can buy you time to play out your defenses, hitting a Tumble Magnet can allow you to push an attack through... it is hard to think of anything to target other than a two drop creature that would be bad.
VS Swarm: Fogging to save yourself from death is fine, but not what you're looking for. I would never sideboard Into the Roil in against Boros type decks if I had any other options, and I would not be displeased about cutting it from the main for something else.
VS Valakut: Bouncing a Khalni Heart Expedition in response to it going active can interfere with the Valakut player's plans significantly, and it can also slow down a Titan for a turn by stopping a Overgrown Battlement/Lotus Cobra for a turn if they are going that route. Certainly not optimal, but it can serve in a disaster.
VS CawBlade: Many players are following GerryT's lead toward two Sword of Feast and Famines and no Sword of Body and Mind. With fewer pro-Blue creatures running around the Gomazoa looks like a reasonable option for fighting the Caw. It can block whatever creature is bearing the Sword and live to tell about it, or if they have no Swords it can hold a whole fleet of Squadron Hawks at bay.
VS Swarm: A blocker that never dies is never a bad thing against aggressive decks, and the one power can be relevant. Against Boros it may just eat a Lightning Bolt, but they aren't always going to have it, and if they do that is still a Bolt that can't go to your face later in the game.
VS Valakut: Dead. Primeval Titan has Trample and can get Valakut, the Molten Pinnacles and Mountains to kill of the Gomazoa before blockers are declared if it wants to, Inferno Titan can kill it off before blockers with its Arc Lightning, and Avenger of Zendikar has multiple bodies that need dealing with. This is irrelevant against every one of Valakut's threats.
Thanks for reading,
@BGardnerDurbin on Twitter