Table of Contents
New format is upon us and soon we will dip our toes in drafts of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan (LCI). First days are always the tricky ones because we still don’t have a good intuition of what does the opponent have in their hand. Is boosting my creatures toughness to 4 a good idea because it lets it avoid most removal? Shall I play this combat trick into 2 open mana? 1 open mana? Or do I risk a blowout? Hopefully after reading my removal guide to LCI, you will be ready for the new draft format, and even if not, you can have it opened at hand while you play. Nobody will know and we definitely won’t tell!
As in my previous guides, I will look at the four categories of removal spells:
Recent sets have spoiled us with removal spells. Torch the Tower and Candy Grapple were the top win rate commons in WOE. Claim the Precious in LTR and in MOM, both Deadly Derision and Ephara's Dispersal were just behind a limited all-star, Preening Champion. Cheap, efficient and, importantly, abundant removal defined those formats and dictated how we played them. But how will the LCI removal line up against those sets? And will we see some new color trends in the removal quality? I think so. But before concluding that, let us scroll through what LCI has to offer.
Unconditional removal are the spells which can deal with almost every creature. Only some fringe examples with indestructible, hexproof and protection can be exceptions to that rule. This makes unconditional removal an important tool in your deck. Especially if your plan is for a long game. Rule of the thumb is, that the longer the game, the more likely it becomes that you will need an unconditional removal because with time, the probability your opponent will get to amount of mana required to cast a large impactful creature increases.
At the same time the probability they draw that large creature also goes up. So you better be ready for it. Faster, aggressive decks can get by without unconditional removal, because their plan is to end the game before those must-deal threats can hit the battlefield. Unconditional removal is normally concentrated in Black and White, with Blue sometimes getting access to it via the Charmed Sleep style effect and usually through counterspells.
Ray of Ruin is what is usually called “the clunky black removal spell”. You pay a large mana premium for the unconditional removal, but sometimes you just need to include it in your deck. And given the scarcity of unconditional removal in black, in LCI it may be more frequent than previously. But there are good news. Unlike other clunky removals, that don’t offer much, this one is a bit more flexible. It exiles which means that in this set it deals with even the most annoying bombs – the Gods – and prevents recursion of any other creatures it killed.
This also doesn’t trigger Descend mechanic. It can kill a Vehicle, which is sometimes a problem with sorcery speed spells, that you can never cast when the Vehicle is a creature. And it does kill non-basic lands. Normally a trinket text but in LCI we have 5 powerful creature lands and 13 cards that flip into sometimes very powerful lands, so having that extra optionality will come in handy. And on top of that, you still get the Scry 1. So Ray of Ruin, despite still being clunky, might be a fine card to play, especially in your more controlling decks that aim at playing longer games.
Bitter Triumph looks like a premium removal. 2 mana, instant speed and once in a blue moon you will kill Quintorius Kand. But don’t underestimate the steep cost of discarding a card or losing 3 life. You probably want to make sure the discard is meaningful: make sure you at least get a descended trigger out of it. Still, 2 mana for that effect is constructed level power – you will play it in any black deck in LCI limited.
White is the king of unconditional removal in LCI. 2 at common, 1 at uncommon and one rare spell make up for an impressive package. When thinking about this set keep that in mind. This is a unique format where black is not the main color of removal, it is actually white and in my opinion, this will have large implications on how the format plays out impacting power levels in favour of white.
Petrify is the cheap and efficient white removal of the set and traditionally this is either a version of Pacifism or Oblivion Ring. I am usually low on the Pacifism, as most of the time creature still has uses if left behind on board. Still, a 2 mana version of Arrest is tempting. Taking away activated abilities greatly limits what the leftover creature can do. So my prediction is Petrify is going to be strong, purely based on efficiency.
Quicksand Whirlpool is the clunky white removal for the set. 6 mana is a lot. But it can cost 3 mana if you are on the defensive and exile and instant speed are neat to have. My guess it will play a role in some white-based control decks and that’s where you should play it.
Dusk Rose Reliquary is an uncommon version of Oblivion Ring. The mana cost is amazing – this card will almost certainly see constructed play. But on top of the mana cost, you need to sacrifice a creature or and artifact. This means it is not for every deck and you need to build around it a bit in order to make it viable. But there is plenty of redundant cardboard in LCI. A map token, Treasure, Tinker's Tote gathering dust on the battlefield or even a 1/1 gnome can all be used to cast it. Can deal with both creatures and artifacts, which is a great thing to have in an artifact-heavy set. Can still be destroyed but Ward 2 on it means opponent will always be behind on mana on that exchange. Great card if you have a deck for it, which makes me want to have a deck that can accommodate it more often than not.
Get Lost gets a prize for a good pun in the card name, but if you go beyond that, we get a solid 2 mana instant speed removal. It does leave behind 2 Maps, which is certainly something. But dealing with any threat is a flexible, especially with the useful extra ability to destroy enchantments and, in rare occasions, Quintorius Kand. 2 Maps will give value to your opponent so make sure you make Get Lost worth casting, focusing on situations where you win by casting it or prevent a loss, rather than playing it to get a little bit of extra value. That extra value will be quickly eaten by opponent cracking the Maps. And keep in mind that if they don’t have creatures, Maps are pretty much worthless.
Blue doesn’t have the usual tap artifact this time, but has a couple of counterspells. These are an unconditional removals, but timing of their use is very conditional so don’t think of them in the same category as, say, Bitter Triumph.
Confounding Riddle is a better version of Supreme Will that was also updated to be more synergistic with the set by putting the cards into graveyard rather than on the bottom of library. Great spell allowing for modality, but we will have to see how do non-permanent spells do in a set so focused on permanent cards in graveyards, especially given that large part of this synergy is in blue.
Out of Air is, imho, a fantastic design. A catch-all counterspell that can counter other things for cheaper? A great idea. But unfortunately, I think this version will be not that great. Firstly, it is a spell in a permanent synergy set. Second, the UU cost in its cheaper version is a real drawback. If it decreased its cost by 1U instead of 2, card would have been amazing, as is, it will be a fringe playable unless you are really heavily in blue.
Hurl into History is powerful but at 5 mana, it better be. Passing a turn with untapped 5 mana will telegraph Hurl loud and clear against a good player. So you want to not care that much about telegraphing it. I can see Hurl being good in an aggressive tempo deck that has cheap flying creatures that give you a board advantage early. With early advantage and instant speed interaction, you can afford to leave 5 mana up and if opponent is forced to play their blocker – use Hurl to counter it. Disadvantage of that is that having instant interaction will not always work great with Discover. Especially if you have more counterspells. Still I see the potential for that card in some builds.
Kitesail Larcenist is a removal on the stick with a great evasive body and some amount of protection against removal. You actively want to play it and I find it hard to imagine opening it in draft and not picking it. Great card for limited.
Molten Collapse is a constructed plant, but it is still a great removal. 2 mana, kill anything, including planeswalker. And once in a blue moon you will get an equipment or Dusk Rose Reliquary with the second mode on top of the creature. Drawback is, you have to be RB to play it.
Conditional removal is a broad category that encompasses all spells that kill some fraction of creatures in the format but doesn’t guarantee a kill. Main category of conditional removal are damage spells and this is the first group of spells I will be talking about. But to evaluate the conditional removal, it is good to know how do those spells align with the creature sizing.
Looking into different sizing categories, there are 3 main things to keep in mind. Firstly, X/1 creatures are rare. Which is not an issue here as there is no dedicated 1 damage spell like Flick a Coin or Rat Out in WOE. Secondly, there are many creatures with power 5 or more – 17% at common is a lot more than in any other set in the recent years. Thirdly – rare creatures are rather large in size. More than 50% of them have toughness of 4 or more.
You can see that even better comparing toughness of LCI common creatures to the sizing of common creatures in the recent sets:
Conditional damage based removal is usually the domain of red and LCI is not an exception. OK, so there is no ping a creature for 1 spell, but there are 3 different versions of Shock.
Sunfire Torch is an equipment that can be turned into a 1-time Shock if you need it to. Can kill a creature or go face, which is a nice modality. Still a +1/+0 bonus is not that much, so unless you really want the extra piece of cardboard on board to help with the tap two things mechanic in WR, my prediction is that unlike in WOE, in LCI you will frequently pass the Torch when you see it in draft.
Idol of the Deep King is the reverse Torch – first a shock and then an equipment. It cost a lot so you really want to have that extra piece of cardboard on board in order to play it.
Triumphant Chomp is a deal 2 damage spell in any deck. One mana and sorcery are not a particularly great deal but it deals with most 1-2-drop threats. But if you manage to get a 3-4 power dino on board, this card becomes a premium removal spell. It is playable in any red deck, amazing in RG Dinosaurs and gets better in any deck with a couple of 3+ power dinos you might naturally want to play in your red decks, like Scytheclaw Raptor.
Abrade looks like head and shoulders above any other red common. 2 mana for killing all the 3 toughness creatures and on top of that will deal with one of many annoying artifacts, which, just looking at the creature artifacts, increases the number of valid targets by 10% points. That is a great rate and seeing Abrade in a draft should be a reason to draft red.
Trumpeting Carnosaur is a bomb, and the 3 damage removal spell tagged on to it is not what you want to cast, but having that option as an emergency is always nice.
Rumbling Rockslide occupies the spot of 4 mana deal 4 damage spells, but will frequently deal more damage than that, helping red decks to be able to cope with larger creatures they can encounter playing against, say, dinosaur decks.
Black has some key pieces of conditional removal in LCI
Dead Weight returns in this set and has a chance to be a key piece. Removal for early threats that fuels Descend and activates Descended if need be? Yes please. I don’t think it will be premium, but it should be solid.
Join the Dead looks premium. 3 mana to kill anything with 5 or less toughness it already good. But with a relatively easy to get Descend 4, it turns into something that kills everything in the set except for Ghalta. And BB in the casting cost makes sure that you need to be dedicated to black to play it. I like that style of removal. I am not a big fan of making black top removal accessible as a splash card in nonsense 5 color amalgams…
Stalactite Stalker grows with the game and can be either an evasive threat or a removal spell. Great payoff for a deck, which can reliably descend every turn.
Chupacabra Echo is a natural 2-for-1 if you can enable enough permanents in your graveyard, which should be easy in most black decks. This makes it a candidate for one of the top uncommons of the set.
Tithing Blade and Abyssal Gorestalkerare unconditional removal spells but what they kill is far from guaranteed. If you play against a go-wide strategy, they might be quite poor value, but against some decks they will be amazing.
Tithe could be an ok card if you want to preserve your life total till late game in some sort of a control shell. Gorestalker looks a very risky card to play at all – you will have to sacrifice it to itself if you don’t have enough creatures, but it might be a top end in some sort of go wide WB deck in rare cases.
White, on top of its good unconditional removal, has a couple of good defensive conditional spells.
Cosmium Blast is another version of the traditional “deal 4 to attacker of blocker” spell. This is an OK thing to have if you expect to be attacked a lot. Slower controlling decks will love it as their first line of defence. But be careful with putting it in your aggressive builds – for those you might want a more proactive removal.
Spring-Loaded Sawblades is a better Cosmium Blast just on the front side of it. One more damage, same mana. But that cards has extra benefits. It flips into a threatening 5/5 vehicle that is trivial to crew. But wait – there is more. You can always bounce the Sawblades to your hand in order to replay it – a neat way to turn your bounce spell into a removal. One of the reasons I think there will be a good white based control deck in this format.
Green has a traditional bite and fight spell. Huatli's Final Strike is a common version of Clear Shot. Slightly worse than Clear Shot, as the toughness bonus on it was very important. Still, we get a very good bite spell that can swing the advantage in a game at common – if green is good, Huatli's Final Strike will be a part of it.
Malamet Battle Glyph is a cheap fight spell that offers a boost to power and toughness in some circumstances. You definitely want to have some larger creatures around if you are planning to play it but green specialises in those so you should be able to play them, especially if you play Dinosaurs.
Talking about Dinosaurs, last fight spell in the set is on Itzquinth, Firstborn of Gishath – a 2/3 haste for 2 is already good. Being able to add a shock to it for 2 mana is great. And if the shock becomes 3, 4 or more damage, card becomes amazing. One of the favourites to become the top signpost uncommons for the format.
This is a weirdly appealing card in LCI. 6 mana for 6 damage is not an amazing deal, but being colorless gives access to removal to colors that normally are not having it. And cycling is a good cop-out when you have it stuck in your hand. And after doing its job, it leaves a tappable/craftable/flickerable body on board. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try so hard with the Runaway Boulder, you might just get what you need.
Tempo-based removal doesn’t deal with a creature permanently. Usually it either bounces it or puts on top of owners library or taps it for some time. Normally it is focused around blue and LCI is no exception.
Brackish Blunder looks like a great tempo spell. Not only deals with a threat for a turn, but if it is tapped you get a Map as a bonus. Not bad for 2 mana. It will find some homes in LCI, I can see a UR or UW tempo deck wanting a copy or two.
Unlucky Drop is another in the cycle of 4 mana spells that put their target on top or bottom of owner’s library. But it is not Revenge of the Drowned. And absolute minimum for that effect at this cost – could be good in some formats, but I think in LCI with the strong ‘permanents in the graveyard’ theme in blue, Unlucky Drop doesn’t look great.
Waylaying Pirates are Ixalan’s answer to Berg Strider A decent body if you can enable the ETB trigger, an atrocious card if you can’t. So you only want to play it when you are going to trigger the ability reliably. And if you can, looks like a nice option to have as a top end. Curving out 1 drop into 2 into 3 drop into Pirates will end many games.
Lodestone Needle gets rid of its target for a couple of turns and later can become an Explore engine. Hard to evaluate its power before playing it, but certainly can have potential.
Some blue removal is hard to assign to one of the categories. Song of Stupefaction, for example, makes its target useless in attacking in most cases. But it does leave a defensive body. So it is hard to judge its utility. My feeling is it will be mediocre but I can imagine getting surprised by this card.
Eaten by Piranhas is a take on a classic blue removal, that turns its target into a 1/1. Normally that type of spell is pretty bad – leaving a body behind is something you don’t want to do. But Piranhas have Flash, which means you can cast the aura in combat, making sure its target gets killed in combat because of the reduced body. That can make Eaten by Piranhas into a playable or – dare I say – decent card.
Braided Net is this set’s take on Icy Manipulator. Reminiscent of Tamiyo's Immobilizer from ONE, because of its limited number of uses or Hylda of the Icy Crown from WOE for combining tapping ability with card draw, Net looks set to become a great card for control archetypes.
Sweepers in Limited are both important and disliked by many players. Usually there are some hard sweepers, that deal with most of the board and several smaller conditional mini-sweepers. Both types are there in LCI.
Tectonic Hazard is really not even a mini-sweeper – more like a micro-sweeper. And in a set with few X/1 creatures it is definitely not good enough to be main-decked. In some rare cases it could be used as a sideboard card, but no need to prioritise it.
Malicious Eclipse is a kind of effect people put too often in their decks. This is a card for constructed sideboards – in Limited it doesn’t have enough utility. It is a good version of this effect but the effect is not good enough itself which also doesn’t make me interested in it unless something unexpected happens in the format.
The two cards above can become real sweepers but are still conditional, which opens some possibilities to set them up in such a way that you are in front after resolving it. Both need a bit of building around. Terror Tide should be relatively easy to make work and looks powerful in right decks.
Calamitous Cave-In requires building a Cave deck, which might be non-trivial. If you are interested in my thoughts on how to maximise Caves builds, you can find them here. But if you manage to get there, at uncommon Cave-In can be a key element of a Cave-centered self mill control deck.
Last three are the real sweepers. Unstable Glyphbridge leaves one creature for each player but you have the power to choose which ones survive and if you flip the Bridge, you get a very annoying 5/3 flyer to finish the job quickly. Card looks like another strong white removal worth noting.
Bringer of the Last Gift is certainly powerful. 6/6 Flying? Great. Living Death as an ETB trigger? Great. Especially in a set with landcyclers. But 8 mana is a lot. So you need to make absolutely sure that swapping creatures on the battlefield with the contents of your graveyard is going to be beneficial for you 9 out of 10 times. Otherwise, playing Bringer in your deck is close to pointless.
Amalia Benavides Aguirre is a pun on a 1972 Werner Herzog movie “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”. But in Limited Amalia will never be a Wrath of God outside some one in a million situations. This card can be a sweeper in a combo constructed deck with cards like Wildgrowth Walker. Still, please, do tag me if you manage to go boom with Ms Aguirre.
This completes the list of LCI removal. One thing I suspect in this set is that removal is going to be markedly weaker than in the preceding sets. Yes, Abrade is strong, yes Petrify and Join the Dead look pretty good but apart of those examples removal looks slightly flat. Most non-damage based conditional spells were cut, making me think that poor removal quality and quantity in LCI is a feature rather than a bug. Time will tell but poor removal and powerful creatures printed in the set can mean LCI will be the most princely set in recent years. I hope I am wrong, but it is a possibility I am mentally ready for it.
Another interesting feature of LCI: it is the first set in years that, in my opinion, has white as the strongest removal color. And given that white creature base also looks solid, we might be living in the world where white is the set’s top color. Something we didn’t see in a long time. And here I do hope I am right – it would be nice to have Wx control deck as a viable option once in a while.
We have to wait for the new set’s full release to test my predictions, but independently of those, I am looking forward to my LCI drafts and after reading this article, you should be slightly prepared for not falling into removal traps.