The Case for Point Removal in Commander

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[Editor's Note: I'd like to welcome Jules Robins, another new Commander writer for QS! I'll let Jules handle the introduction. Enjoy!]

Hello everyone. I’m Jules Robins, and this is my first article for Quiet Speculation in this shiny new column: Ray of Command. I’m planning to discuss broad strategy considerations in how Commander differs from other forms of Magic (you can assume I’m talking about free-for-all multiplayer Commander unless I explicitly state otherwise) and what makes the format so much fun. Ultimately, this column is about what you want, so if you have other Commander-related topics you’d rather hear about please let me know!

You’re here to read about Commander, right?

Commander strategy has a multitude of interesting facets, both in the inherent implications of the format’s rules, and in the ideas and culture which have grown up around it. One of these developments has been the assertion that players should run board sweepers rather than point removal to deal with creatures, and today I’m here to tell you otherwise.

The reasoning behind this assumption actually stems from a common thread in multiplayer strategy at one of the major points where it diverges from its duel counterpart. In a duel, one-for-one trades like removal and counterspells create card parity, and so when used in conjunction with card advantage generators like Concentrate, they can bury your opponent with card advantage while answering their threats. Multiplayer is a different beast altogether. If you play a lot of one-for-one removal and some card draw in a multiplayer game, instead of staring at an empty board while pulling farther and farther ahead, you’ll be wide open to the threats that your other opponents are laying down, and might even be their prime target because of all of those cards you’re drawing.

In conventional multiplayer, a sweeper is much better than a point removal. Sure it’s slower, but if there’s an aggro deck it probably isn’t focus firing you since its pilot has a lot of people to deal with. Instead of putting you behind with each casting, sweepers have the opportunity to put you ahead while simultaneously eliminating each opponent’s threats. But Commander isn’t quite like other multiplayer formats. The most obvious change to the need for creature removal is the life total difference: with 40 starting life early attacks aren’t usually much of a concern. Moreover, with the singleton nature of the format there isn’t much risk of consistent aggressive starts or combos involving creatures which need answered promptly. Thus, one might assume that what is true in the sweeper vs. spot removal question for regular multiplayer would be truer here. This thinking fails to take into account how people play the format differently, which is usually more important than what should be true.

Because the format is inherently so much slower, very few players are trying to come out of the gates aggressively and instead most games escalate to slugfests of enormous bombs. With the combination of a lot of players, and the extra time provided to them by higher life totals, only the biggest threats will usually matter. Sure, on occasion random beats from a Flametongue Kavu will get there, but more often than not, it will get knocked out by a sweeper intended to deal with a real threat.

While everyone else is playing a bunch of sweepers, it opens you up to not having to. Once we don’t need to worry about the small fries, we can consider the big tradeoff that comes with running sweepers: castability. With the exceptions of Rout and a couple of blue gems, board sweepers are expensive sorceries, whereas a fair number of pinpoint removal spells come in cheap instant form (just like ramen). If we’re only aiming to answer the big threats, the vast majority of the time the ability to interfere with our opponents’ machinations will outweigh the card disadvantage that comes with one-for-one removal spells. In fact, the concept of card advantage doesn’t bear much on Commander because the threats are powerful enough to win unsupported.

“But wait!” you cry, “Point removal may be more effective, but isn’t the point of the format to do big splashy things? Surely you aren’t going to try to convince me that Doom Blade is cooler than Martial Coup!” No, no I’m not. Instead, I’m going to contend that what we’re really looking for in Commander are the very biggest and splashiest moments and interactions; we aren’t just jamming in the biggest version of each individual effect.

As I see it, there’s a threshold of awesomeness: while a card like Martial Coup isn’t something you would label as ‘uninteresting,’ casting it for anything less than 1,000 mana isn’t really memorable. Moments that are memorable, like Forking a Living Death with a bunch of [card Eternal Witness]1[/card][card Karmic Guide]8[/card][card Bogardan Hellkite]7[/card] creatures (now 603.6a creatures, but did you really want to know that?) on the board and in the bin, are usually proactive, and can happen with a lot of unexciting cards in the mix. Removal isn’t the part of our decks that needs to be splashy, so we don’t need to favor splashy answers over effective ones.

Before we go on I should clarify that I’m not arguing against playing sweepers. The mentality which a lot of the Commander community has gotten into, that there is no reason to run spot removal, is flawed, and that because of this mentality you may be able to eschew board wipes from your own lists. Obviously, a deck full of Mortifys without a Damnation in sight is going to have a tough time beating a table of token decks, so choosing to run no sweepers would require a playgroup that had really gone hog-wild. But I think many Commander decks could benefit from replacing a couple of their [card Wrath of God]Wraths[/card] with [card Path to Exile]Paths[/card].

In order to successfully replace sweepers with point removal, you’ll have to do more than open yourself up to being swarmed: you’ll have to be patient. With the ability to remove fewer creatures over the course of the game, you’ll need to use your removal sparingly. Don’t just sling Doom Blades at every threat you see, instead hold your answers for the cards that will really make a difference, the Consecrated Sphinx, Primeval Titan, Memnarch, or what have you. This approach will probably lead to you getting hit by utility creatures a bit more often, but that’s not as bad as leaving Consecrated Sphinx for a whole turn cycle of draw phases, or Primeval Titan for everyone and their sister to Threaten. By being conservative with your point removalyou can stop shenanigans like these from occurring, and with enough removal spells and enough patience you might never get blown out by one.

That’s not what we want. Magic isn’t a whole lot of fun when you feel like you can’t get anywhere because your opponent has all of the answers. Sure you might win by packing answers to every major threat, and you wouldn’t even have to explicitly violate the format’s social contract; you don’t need land destruction or combo kills to stay in control (this is a dangerous word, but that’s a topic for a future article). While a hand full of counterspells and card draw isn’t as oppressive in multiplayer Magic as in a duel, you will nonetheless put a damper on the table’s fun with too many answers.

At the same time, we don’t want Commander to degenerate into ‘whoever drops a bomb first wins,’ so we need to carefully balance the number of answers we have to give us a reasonable number of outs while still leaving the people we’re playing with license to do some awesome stuff. In my experience, I’ve found this sweet spot to be right around twelve slots, but the number depends upon the answers themselves as well as the density of such cards in the rest of your playgroup’s decks. Give it a try: remove what you care about, and let the community’s infatuation with board wipes cover the rest.

I hope you enjoyed my first article here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts (positive or negative) in the comments, on Twitter, or over email. Did you find this article interesting or helpful? What could have improved it in your mind? Let me know, and I look forward to seeing you again next week!

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on Twitter
toahaomin on Magic Online

11 thoughts on “The Case for Point Removal in Commander

  1. A fellow at my casual table runs a very oppressive mono black control deck with korlash heir to blackblade as his general. It runs around 12 creatures and the rest are "answers" and land. I have tried all i can to build a deck for me and my wife to at least stand a chance of winning but to no avail. Any suggestions on good ways to control black? my wife wont even play anymore because it is always the same he wins we lose its very boring. thanks for your time

    1. It would help to know what colors you plan to play to give you specific cards to help with mono black.

      Sean has a great list here. The article above with spot removal (Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Condemn, Unsummon, Rend Flesh, etc) seem like great places to start. If he is crushing you with the general, then find ways to put his general in the deck. Hinder is probably my favorite way to do this.

      Akroma's Memorial is an artifact that, among other things, will give all of your creatures pro-black.

      Black has a host of nasty enchantments that can really mess with the board. Mass removal of enchantments works really well when one player goes over board with enchantments. Primeval Light is a card that will suite you well.

      If he ISN'T running Phage the Untouchable, try Telemin Performance. It mills their deck until they hit a creature card and then that creature comes into play under your control. 12 is really great odds you'll hit at least 10 cards. This plus Relic of Progenitus will give you some great mill/graveyard removal.

      The other thing to do in this situation is to form a play group that doesn't involve that person. If they are so dominate that they cause people not to want to play, exclude them from your games. After awhile, they will change decks and hopefully they will learn how to be a productive member of the community.

      If you are looking for more help just look me up on twitter @hawtgnutek . Best on ya!

  2. Hey Lance, what sort of cards are the worst? Seems like a mono black deck might abuse things like Grave Pact or Abyss. It might play lands like Cabal Coffers, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and Vesuva (for that second Coffers).

    Probably the worst card I can think of that a deck like that would run would be Death Cloud. No fun at all. Maybe mass discard as well.

    So, try some things like this:

    First, spot land removal. Wasteland may be expensive, but Strip Mine, Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge are cheap, and you can tutor them all up with Tolaria West or Expedition Map. Pack them so the mana doesn't get out of hand.

    Flashback spells are great, like Ray of Revelation, to take care of things like Grave Pact or the like. Additionally, War Priest of Thune and Duergar Hedge-Mage are awesome.

    Finally, if there's one permanent type that will give a black player headaches all day long, it's enchantments. From Leyline of the Void, Leyline of Sanctity, or even just Mobilization, you're looking at some difficult to deal with protection. Asceticism and Privileged Position will give his targeted "answers" nothing to target.

    As far as threats, look for things that are resilient and give you value even if they are dealt with quickly. Additionally, protection from black is pretty sweet, especially on cards like Akroma, Angel of Wrath.

    Fantastically, there's an ENCHANTMENT (ding!) that gives ALL creatures protection from black. You're sure to gain some allies against this guy with that card. It's called Absolute Grace. Watch him squirm! He can't even target his own guys. Non-creature artifacts have a history of causing black mages grief, too. Akroma's Memorial fits the bill AND gives your creatures haste, which is a great way for them to have some fun before the Damnations and Living Deaths take care of them.

    Auriok Champion and Chameleon Colossus are pretty sweet, too (and they would be even without pro-black). Devout Lightcaster does two things black doesn't like: laugh at Doom Blade and exile their stuff! Mirran Crusader's double strike is awesome with equips, and as a bonus he's pretty cool agains elves, too!

    Speaking of which, there are two excellent (if pricey; hopefully you have a copy or two in your collection) equipments with protection from black as a perk, but certainly not the main point: Sword of Feast and Famine, and Sword of Light and Shadow. The latter, combined with Sun Titan is _stupid-hard_ to get rid of. Kill the sword? Oh, look, it costs 3! Kill the titan? Something else swings in (Soltari Monk? Stonecloaker?) and brings him back to your hand for more.

    Stonecloaker and his big brother Dust Elemental are pretty sweet insurance against removal, too.

    If blue or green is more your thing, try Master Transmuter (now you see it, now you don't!) or if Green is better, Great Sable Stag and Whirling Dirvish.

    Also, check this sweet combo: Karmic Guide plus Cloudstone Curio! You'll get a creature back every turn for 5 mana, and return your Karmic Guide to your hand where it will survive most things Black can cook up.

    Finally, punish swamps! Crusading Knight will put the hurt on quickly. Karma, as they say, is a b*tch. So is Kormus Bell plus pyroclasm, or Roots of Life!

    Go old-school when color hate was cool. Lifeforce is an answer to all sorts of swamp-flavored problems. Heck, so is Nightsoil, to some extent (since it hates on creatures in graveyards, but that's less of an issue if your "friend's" deck is light on critters.

    Hope that helps!

  3. Thanks for writing in.
    @Lance: The above suggestions will all be effective, but if your goal is specifically to make the most fun game for everyone, you should recognize that your friend enjoys removal. You can try convincing him that you enjoy other things and to compromise, but if that doesn't work I still wouldn't just stuff in a whole lot of protection from black creatures because that invalidates his good time. Instead I'd recommend a route that leaves his removal useful, but lets you win through it, like running a lot of artifacts and enchantments or Master Transmuter-esque cards. You want your deck to be stronger against his removal, but not to ignore it entirely.

  4. @Lance: i made very good experience with my monoblue Thada/Memnarch steel-your-stuff-deck against black decks. You draw tons of cards, play hard to handle artifacts/enchantments and a few counterspells against their big mana spells are quite effective.
    Also big green hard to kill monsters (i also have an Azusa deck) could work.
    Although i haven't tried it, i know from duels that red burn can be good against black, i think some goblin-tribe highlander could be really nasty 🙂

  5. No offense but I disagree with this article in many many ways. Sweepers are generally not as good as targeting removal. I was under this same impression when I first began playing EDH, but now I've come to realize that sweepers do nothing more than clear everything. Often times, a single removal spell followed by an attack and forced chump blocking is significantly more effect than sweeping the board. You forget, it seems, that creatures can also kill creatures. While sweepers are expensive, they are even more expensive when you kill your own dudes. Sure if you run a no creature deck, you won't worry about wrathing your own creatures, but to me that deck sounds totally unfun.
    And by the way, Forking a Living Death does not sound like fun, since I've seen it too many times.
    In general, please consider your strategies before writing about them. I really don't want to see another noob deck with 20 wraths in it.

  6. @Paul: If you read the article more closely, you’ll see that I’m advocating running fewer sweepers, not more. On Forking Living Death, this is a play that nobody’s deck makes in my playgroup, and has a lot of different outcomes depending upon which creatures are involved, but it’s just an example. If that move comes up too often in your playgroup, I’d recommend anything non-repetitive and high impact.

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