Howdy, folks, and welcome to HowWL! Any good limited deck is supported by a number of pillars I call the 3Bs: Bombs, Breaks, and Bodies. Today I want to delve into the middle one, how to deal with your opponent’s problem cards. We’re going to talk about all sorts of removal, from damage to dulling, from bouncing to blocking. Come join along and lets dig deep into what makes breaking so good!
We’re going to focus on two major game states today and how removal plays into those: Defensive, where your opponent has board control and you’re trying to stave him/her off; and Offensive, when you have the advantage and are trying to apply pressure. In a defensive posture, you are typically looking to dismantle your opponent’s ability to attack you, and will be attempting to directly destroy their forwards or create a threatening barrier they cannot punch through. In an offensive stance you typically are trying to make sure your opponent cannot stop your attacks, finding ways to eliminate blockers on the cheap just long enough to win. Let’s look at each form of removal and see how they assist those goals.
Certainly the simplest to math out. You pay X to remove a Forward that cost Y so you know right off whether it was a good deal or not. Rarely will you have to worry about the target coming back. Most effects that outright break a forward are designed to be equivalent value to what they’re stopping, so it can be difficult to come ahead on resources, especially on Forwards which already leveraged some value with an ETF effect or the like.
Effects like Leviathan which return a Forward to the opponent’s hand are almost always CP negative. Let’s say I use Opus 1 Leviathan to bounce a 4cp forward. On the surface it seems good, right? My investment of five CP (the three I paid and two more from not being able to discard Levi to pay for something else) traded with your six cp investment. However, I have put 2cp back into your hand! I’ve spent 5, but you only spent 4! Bounce is often the most difficult to convert into value, as you need to hit something that costs 2 more than what you paid. However, it does remove the Forward from the board, eliminating it as a blocker and clearing any pesky abilities it may have, if only for a short time. Sometimes all you need is a little time.
One of the easiest ways to trade up CP. Altering power lets you use your own Forward to break a Forward larger than it could have handled on its own. Using this to trade two Forwards can be necessary, however if your Forward survives then you’re only trading the cost of the effect with their Forward. Often requires more set-up than hard Break removal, but pays you back for the extra effort.
A bit more flexible than outright break, but without the power of power reduction. Straight damage is the most common type of removal, found in every element save water. Smaller amounts will often need to be stacked on top of combat or with other amounts. Damage is also the riskiest, as it is the easiest to counter.
The most ephemeral form of removal. There is no economy to dull/freeze effects, you are explicitly trading your resources for tempo. Dull/Freeze will temporarily remove Forwards from combat, either buying you a reprieve from your opponent’s onslaught or securing precious player damage. The benefits to dull/freeze is that it is super cheap, and is one of the most cost-effective ways to deal with Forwards too big for you to handle otherwise. Also, if you win before it runs out, it functionally was hard removal.
Exceedingly rare, few effects coerce an attack or a block. Illusionist, O1 Lightning, and O7 Galuf can all do it, but attacking while the opponent is at 5 damage also forces a block, barring removal. When you restrict your opponent’s options like this, you can set up for some brutal effects, like swinging an 8k into a smaller forward while threatening lethal. Unless the opponent has a trick, he or she is obligated to block and lose their forward. This can be a strong reason to avoid tanking five damage early on, so you have flexibility in how you approach difficult combat steps in the late game.
While not technically removal, sometimes you don’t need to break something to make it ineffectual. A 9k blocker is a pretty effective deterrent to 8ks. As a corollary, if an 8k swings into your 9k, and your opponent has their backups active and a full grip of cards, the threat of a combat trick can be enough to prevent the block. Also, an effect that searches removal and publicly tells your opponent you have it (like o7 Seymour and light Terra) can seriously affect their lines of play. Sometimes you can even just bluff the opponent into respecting a card you don’t even have. This often works better against people more familiar with what tricks are in the format. As an example from constructed, attacking with one active ice backup represents Mateus, and may cause an opponent not to make a favorable block.
Maximizing your destruction:
A few notes on optimizing your removal
It can pay to wait to hit something. Imagine you have o7 Ramuh and your opponent’s 7k has been giving you fits. But you wait, for you suspect a trick in their hand. You swing your own 7k, they block, then they discard Flan to buff their forward. Now Ramuh is trading not only for their 7k, but an extra 2cp on top! This is only a small example, baiting out something more expensive like Yojimbo can be crippling. Interrupting your opponent’s combos with your own removal helps to boost your economy advantage, allowing you to more easily run them out of resources. Playing Famfrit in response to a break effect. Bouncing a Forward in response to a combat trick. Eking out as much CP as you can with each action is the best way to victory.
A more aggressive deck will often be focused on temporary or cost inefficient removal. It will seek to pair cheap, evasive forwards with low-cost-but-low-impact removal. It doesn’t need to get rid of blockers long, just long enough to deal six damage. O7 Snow is a great example of this, overpaying for a source of repeated board control. Most of the ice Forwards in the set feed into him: Bablizz is a cheap trigger for Snow and fetches Shiva to freeze the forwards Snow dulls; Time Mage locks down more Forwards; Red Mage limits the opponent’s options; and Mystic Knight is both hyper-efficient and gives a discount on future Shivas. Build several forwards, wait for your opponent to overextend, then lock him/her out long enough to secure a win.
A slower, more controlling deck will seek to generate several profitable trades throughout the course of the game. Once it has a sufficient resource lead, it will be almost impossible for the opponent to interact in any meaningful way. EX bursts are the best for this, pulling CP out of thin air. A slow deck will weather the storm, lock down the board with big beaters, and use efficient removal either to improve their economy or handle Forwards too big to be deterred. Hard removal and power reduction will guide a deck more down this path.
These are of course generalizations. Defensive decks will appreciate the time temporary removal gives them to stabilize, and aggressive decks will love hard removal as a final answer to tough problems. And few decks will be so dedicated to one archetype as to completely eschew cards outside if it. Removal is too scarce and too precious to pass up for these considerations. The removal should dictate the deck, rather than the reverse.
Make sure you keep your removal for when you really need it. If there’s a problem you can solve through other means, like bluffing or board control, try to do that. Often, players will put out their weaker threats first to bait out a response, then when the coast is clear will deploy their real threat. You don’t want to be facing down a 9k beatstick when the only way you had to handle it was spent on a smol boi.
Removal is a crucial part of any deck’s gameplan. Having an intimate knowledge of how best to utilize it will give you a greater foundation from which to tackle Limited. Thanks for reading along, hope you join us again in the future!