An Otherworldly Duel
It has been an awkward game. You are on a standard Big Combrei list, and sitting across the digital table is the notorious Unearthly, who is battling with his Rakano deck du jour. For the sake of this example let’s assume he is on this deck. Your early game was stifled by drawing few early game plays, while Mr. Rakano came out with a strong 1-2-3 curve, but has been stuck on 3 power since then. Last turn you finally pulled the trigger on a Harsh Rule, allowing you to stabilize at 6 life, with the plan of lining up a beautiful sequence of Mystic + Time Sigil, and begin to bury your opponent in card advantage. You have a Vanquish left over in your hand to clear out any lingering resistance, but you are worried about the 3 cards left in Unearthly’s virtual grip, as well as the 3 Warcry bonuses that are still unaccounted for from the early game. On your opponent’s turn they play a 2/2 Tinker Overseer, plays a Fire Sigil, and passes. For your turn you draw a Desert Marshall. You are 6 power. What do you do?
To be clear, this is not the kind of “what’s the play” that has a deterministic answer. There is no guaranteed line we can come up with that guarantees victory. We are dealing with a lot of uncertainty here, but in some respects this is more common than the deterministic scenarios you usually see in “what’s the play” puzzles. In fact, this is merely an example to prove a larger point, which I will get to later on.
Ok, so back to our battle. We are faced with a very difficult question – how scared are we of a 2/2 Tinker Overseer? If we are not scared, we should obviously play Mystic + Sigil, take our shields down for the turn, and begin to chain together card draw (for the purpose of the scenario lets assume there are no relevant 1-drops you can draw). This lets us ambush the Overseer with a silence next turn, eating him with our Mystic. If we are scared, we should take this turn off drawing cards with Mystic and hold up Marshall. Next turn we can play Mystic + Sigil and start tearing through our deck, although we have a higher chance of bricking since we miss a card draw from this turn. So, the summary; either play scared and hold up Marshall, or get greedy and drop the Mystic. But how scared should we be of the Tinker Overseer?
The answer to that question is obviously tied to what is in our opponent’s hand, so let’s work through some general categories of “stuff” our opponent could have, and then work through them one by one. As I said above, let’s assume he is playing this list.
-Sword of Icaria.
Ok, so let’s start working through which of these is most likely. First off, the fact that we are battling against Unearthly rather than rakanoDude420 is important. You should assume that he has played near perfectly to this point, and that any line of play or reasoning that is prefaced on your opponent playing incorrectly should be scrapped. We can quickly eliminate some of the possibilities. Given the way the game has played, power seems very unlikely. Unearthly plays 4 and 5 drops in his deck, and slow rolling power while you are stuck on 3 seems like nonsense. Units seems unlikely too. Usually Rakano players want to reload the board with a powerful play after a sweeper, and just a 2/2 flyer does not exactly qualify as a game-swinging line compared to other options. Sword of Icaria also seems improbable. With an opponent at 6 I would be very interested in scoring 3 (or more) damage with a reic weapon that is usually fairly lackluster in the match up given the chance. Therefore, power, units and Sword of Icaria are all fairly unlikely.
This means that the most likely contents of his hand are some combination of spells and weapons. In fact, it seems very likely there is at least one weapon in his hand, because of the missing Warcry bonuses from earlier in the game. There was also no chance to play a Hammer or a Plate earlier in the game. If we power down for a Mystic there is a very good chance we die to either power off the top + Deepforge Plate, or a 4/4 Hammer of Might. By playing Marshall and ambushing the Overseer we are also protected from the less likely spell combinations like Finest Hour x 2, or Finest Hour + Torch.
So, the answer to this “What’s the play” is that we should hold up Marshall, but the objective of this article goes to something deeper. How scared should we be of this 2/2 flyer? When assessing the danger of a given threat we need to take in a lot of situational information. In my quest to Master with Rilgon I felt as if many of my wins came from my opponents misidentifying which threats were the most important. There are many spots where lining up your answers with your opponent’s threats is obvious. You are on Shimmerpack, and your Burn opponent plays an Impending Doom. You have no Sandstorm Titan in hand, but have access to a play of Marisen’s Disciple + Permafrost, using all your power. Do you do it? Obviously. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know there are different possibilities for why this might be wrong, but I would wager that this play is correct at least 90-95% of the time. We use our power well, and we get to neutralize an annoying threat with a perfectly matched answer. Now imagine we are playing Feln Control, we had a strong early-to-mid game against a Rakano deck, are on 20 health, and they topdeck an unbuffed Oni Ronin with no other cards in hand. We now have the option to ultimate a Bloodcaster, or us a Deathstrike (with no other plays). Do we use our removal? Obviously not. We have no reason to be concerned about the 2/1 now, and we have about a million cards in our deck that answer it virtually for free. Why waste a premium removal spell on an insignificant threat, especially when we have a blocker ready, and our life total is fairly comfortable. In these situations it is very simple to determine how important a given threat is, but there are many instances where the distinction is less clear-cut.
Let’s go back to the example of battling Unearthly, and tease apart some hypotheticals. Would I recommend the same line if our health was 10 or higher? Probably not. 6 health means we are dead to power + Plate, 4/4(+) Hammer, or Finest Hour + Torch, which come together to make a fairly likely range of possibilities. If we were at 10, Unearthly probably needs to have 8/8 Plate + power next turn to win (or maybe power + 4/4 Hammer + Torch), which feels fairly unlikely. What about if there were no Warcrys unaccounted for? This is really close. We are still dead to undepleted sigil + Plate, as well as different combinations of spells, but we are not dead to a buffed Hammer. I think this might depend on whether I suspect Unearthly has a spell given previous lines of play. What if there were no cards in Unearthly’s hand? I slam Mystic without hesitation, knowing I need to fade a draw step and I’m probably in the clear. What if he were on 7 power rather than 4 (especially if he had the opportunity to jam weapons earlier in the game)? It seems more likely that his hand is full of power cards rather than being full of powerful cards, and I am willing to take my chances with the Mystic. It is obviously impossible to run through all the different permutations and combinations, but you can see that fine distinctions like these can make or break an assessment.
So let’s point out some of the most important features of something being “threatening”, or why we might use removal. These are the points I am running through in my head when I am faced with an opposing threat:
What is my role in the match up?
The topic of “whose the beatdown?” comes up constantly in my articles. If you are not familiar with the topic I would encourage you to read up on either LightsOutAce’s article, or the original by Michael Flores. Here I will assume you know what I am talking about. If you are the control in a given game, you are expected to answer every threat that comes out of your opponent. “Answer” can mean kill spells and sweepers, or it could simply mean invalidating via bigger units. On the reverse side, if you are the beatdown, you do not need to answer everything, just the cards that get in your way. Imagine you are playing something like my Hooru deck against Shimmerpack. You are basically mono-flyers aggro. There is only one card you really care about from the opponent – Sandstorm Titan. If it is on the table you can’t win, but you are on easy mode if you keep him under control. Another interesting example here would be the aggro mirror when there is Lifesteal a unit on the table. The players may be trying to race, but a big Lifesteal unit will often swing the math so immensely that the entire game warps around just one unit. Here you should be sure to use your removal before the game gets out of control, even though most kill spells are reserved for troublesome blockers.
What other answers do I have for this threat?
Every deck has various cards that it can/cannot answer efficiently. For example, Feln control is particularly weak to the card Champion of Glory, especially when buffed to 5/5 or beyond, since it dodges much of the removal and cannot be efficiently blocked. You are very happy to use Deathstrike against a 5/5 Champion of Glory. By contrast, you are less excited using Deathstrike on a 5/4 Oni Ronin, since it is vulnerable to so much more (e.g. Annihilate, Permafrost, Steward of the Past). One of the features that distinguishes a good Feln control player from a great one is efficiently lining up your removal with your opponent’s threats, to ensure nothing can wiggle its way through the cracks and take over the game.
What is my expected value on this removal spell?
You sometimes get into a match up where some of your spells really don’t have a ton of application. Imagine you are playing a Primal heavy control deck, and your opponent plays a turn 2 Rakano Artisan. You should probably assume they are on Armory, meaning that the Lightning Storm in your hand isn’t going to get much value. Depending on the contents of the rest of my hand, I might be pretty happy to just Storm the 2/1 on turn two. Compare that to the Bandit Queen match up. I would almost never Storm a single 2/1 on turn 2, since I am very likely to get multiple cards worth of value on a Storm. This is like the reverse of the previous point, since it is about playing narrow removal spells so that they do something. I should also mention the upside of getting maximum value from your removal/sweepers. Try and induce your opponent to play into sweepers, so you can get 2-for-1s. Set up blockers to protect your relic weapons to turn them into double removal spells. If you are playing against an opponent with weapons or combat tricks, see if you can nab the pump effect with the unit with one spell. It doesn’t take very many 2-for-1’s before that game is firmly in your favour.
What’s the worst that could happen?
A common reflex for people when presented with a target for their removal spell is to fire it off as soon as possible, but it is often worth waiting a moment to consider what is the worst thing that can actually happen. Here is an example from my time playing Hooru aggro. I would drop a Silverwing Familiar (unbuffed) against a Felnscar control deck, and they would immediately Torch + Annihilate it. Really? You are that scared of a 1/1 flyer? It isn’t like the Lifesteal is a big deal here. Sure, I was planning to jam a Hammer of Might on it next turn, but isn’t it better to Torch + Annihilate it after I pants up my bird? Now I can just play another Silverwing Familiar, play my Hammer on that and beat you to death. Something I have discussed in other places is the “piss your pants factor”. There are certain cards that somehow induce players to panic and do everything they can to remove them, even if they are not a substantial threat at the moment. Infiltrate and Empower units are the most obvious examples, and I continually see people overvalue them. That being said, there are some threats where the “wait and see” approach is a recipe for disaster. You should almost never let a Vodacombo player power up with a Vodakhan in play, because there is a real chance you do not get another turn. Our problem we worked though above was really a “what’s the worst that could happen?” situation, since a 2/2 flyer isn’t too threatening by itself, but we have good reason to believe that Unearthly’s hand may make it much worse than it looks.
Soft Removal versus Hard Removal
Players coming from Magic the Gathering may be largely accustomed to removal being fairly black-and-white. Something is either dead/exiled, or it is not. Those coming from Hearthstone will be more accustomed to “soft” removal, meaning removal that cripples a unit, but not actually killing it. Silence effects are the most common example of this, as it acts as a virtual removal spell for units that hold most of their power in their text box. Another example of soft removal are spells/effects that permanently change the stats of units, as this will leave the unit ineffective in combat, or vulnerable to other removal. In Eternal, another form of soft removal that is common is stun effects. Permafrost and Eye of Winter can permanently lock down a unit, while Crystallize can knock units out of order temporarily. Each of these types of soft removal effects takes care of part of a unit, but not all of it. A silenced unit still gets to keep its body. A unit that has been debuffed by Withering Witch or Stray into Shadow can still attack and block. Stunned units keep static and activated abilities. It is especially important that you allocate soft removal in such a way that you actually answer a threat. There have been games against Feln control where they quickly plop a Permafrost on a Mystic Ascendant. I guess you have contained the threat, but you will probably be buried by the card advantage he continues to generate, and I can always silence him if I want the body back. Similarly, you may be totally satisfied with soft removal in some cases. Hitting a Sandstorm Titan with a silence in the Combrei mirror is more or less meaningless, but it may as well be dead against a fliers aggro deck. Landing a permafrost on Impending Doom is outstanding, even though the 5/5 body is still technically hanging around on the field.
Opportunities for Counter Play
Every removal spell can be countered by something. Torch is “countered” by Finest Hour. Protect stops a Deathstrike. Backlash negates a Harsh Rule. Even relic weapons can be “countered” with ambush units. I feel many intermediate players just jam removal spells and say “If they have the counter they have it!”. Sure, that is true to some degree, but the best players try to find ways around these counters, or at least force them to be used on your terms. If your opponent is playing a Finest Hour deck you should Torch their threat on your turn so you don’t take extra damage from the Finest Hour when they are attacking. If you are playing against a Backlash deck don’t be greedy when setting up a Harsh Rule. One of my personal favorites is against Combrei decks playing Stand Together. Lets say they have a well-developed board including a Siraf and they are moving into 8 power. If I suspect they have Stand Together I may sandbag my Harsh Rule for a turn, and hope they spend all their power on Siraf’s ability next turn. The best players will pre-emptively fire off the Stand Together in that spot to protect their board and allow Siraf to take over, but many people will just move into turn 8 and expect that since I did not Harsh Rule away their board last turn, it should be safe now. Obviously my approach can backfire, but if my hand is composed such that I cannot beat a Stand Together, this line may be the best I can do, and it often works. Also, it is sometimes possible to impose a “counter tax” on your opponent. Imagine your Elysian Midrange opponent is holding up Backlash with a medium board presence. You are on Armory, and instead of playing Harsh Rule you commit Throne Wardens and such to the board. The Elysian player must contort their play over multiple turns to try and keep up Backlash while maintaining pressure, or they must take down their shields. Depending on how the hands evolve, you can stifle your opponent’s development for multiple turns.
You are playing Burn against Feln Tempo. You have the most beautiful curve imaginable, of Torch into Instigator, Champion of Chaos and Impending Doom, as well as a magical 3x Seat + Sigil. Your opponent plays a Turn 2 Instigator, so you have the choice to Torch the Instigator at the end of your opponent’s turn, or save it for a higher value target like Midnight Gale or Cabal Countess. In addition, you might be able to engineer a situation where you can Torch the Instigator while your Instigator is in play for an extra damage. In this situation it is probably correct to just shoot down the Instigator, given that you are planning to spend all your power for probably the next 3 turns. It almost doesn’t matter that the threat is here, given that your power is going to be tight, you should use it efficiently. This is an obvious situation, but especially if you have a power light hand, or scripted plays for the next 2+ turns, you may want to just take the chance when you can to play your castable spells, rather than wasting precious power. That being said, I feel people can overvalue this, and will fire off premium removal spells on threats that are total nonsense, and die later to cards that actually matter. I put this last because it matters, but is slightly overvalued.
That will be our discussion today. There is a lot in here that may not be new to you, but much of it bears repeating, or exploring in a little more detail. Saying “Finest Hour counters Torch” is not exactly breaking news, but hopeful my detailed discussion of the topic did add something, and will help you think through using your removal more carefully. Was there anything I missed? Any interesting scenarios you have run into regarding removal? Be sure to share your thoughts in the Reddit thread! Until then, take it easy, and may your threats always be a step ahead of their answers.