Top 10 Removal Spells in Historic

Day of Judgment Art by Vincent Proce
Day of Judgment Art by Vincent Proce

Long gone are the days of Doom Blade

One of my favorite things to do in Magic is to kill creatures. Actually, not just creatures: put any permanent on the battlefield and I’d be more than happy to destroy it!

We live in a day and age where threats are plenty, and some of them can be game ending if they go unanswered even for a single turn. We’ve all been in a game where our opponent untaps with Korvold, Fae-Cursed King in play, and we all know that game doesn’t end well for us in the vast majority of cases.

Thankfully, every problematic permanent has (or should have) its answer and today we highlight the 10 best removal options in Historic. Please, keep in mind that this list is based on card popularity and my personal opinion, so it’s bound to be different from yours.

Honorable Mentions

These cards were very close to making the cut, but were ultimately left out.

Prismari Command

Prismari Command is by far the best of its cycle. Like every Command, we are offered with a series of choices, most of which will generate card advantage. Prismari Command’s power comes from its ability to be useful at every stage of the game: whether you need early game removal, artifact destruction, card selection, or ramp, the powerful Izzet spell has got your back. Unfortunately, the meta is currently not favoring control decks, so Prismari Command and many of the decks it’s played in have fallen out of favor.

The Meathook Massacre

The powerful enchantment acts both as a board wipe, as well as a source of lifegain and damage in most of the lists it’s played in. Golgari Food is the deck that utilizes the card’s power to its fullest, but outside of this archetype, The Meathook Massacre is barely played. Its low popularity and niche uses are the reasons why it didn’t manage to break into the Top 10.

Cleansing Nova

Once a very popular board wipe, Cleansing Nova has been rightfully overshadowed by Wrath of God and Day of Judgment. Recently, due to the rising popularity of Enchantress decks, Nova has made a strong resurgence. Being one of the few answers to a Nine LivesSolemnity lock, while also being an acceptable wrath, made this card a solid sideboard options for white decks. All things considered though, Cleansing Nova is a valid choice mostly due to the current meta, which pushes it out of Top 10 contention.

Pillar of Flame

Once a mainstay of Phoenix and Madness decks, Pillar’s strength comes from its cheap cost and flexibility: being able to target players, creatures and planeswalkers means that the card is never dead, and is a big help in reaching the critical amount of spells played per turn that Arclight Phoenix demands. While being a sorcery is generally a drawback, effects such as delirium and cards such as Finale of Promise turn it into an upside. As of late the card has declined in popularity as Phoenix decks have opted for a slower and grindier gameplan, and Madness decks have disappeared from the meta.

Top 10

10 – Binding the Old Gods

Opening up our Top 10 is Binding the Old Gods. The ability to destroy ANY nonland permanent the opponent controls is no joke, and that’s what makes this card a great option for Golgari-based midrange decks. The card doesn’t end there though, so let’s have a look at what makes this enchantment so good.

Being a Saga means that we’re guaranteed 3 very relevant effect for as many turns: the turn after destroying an opponent’s permanent, we’ll get to fetch any forest (including Triomes and shocklands) and put it into play tapped, and on the third and final turn our creatures will gain deathtouch and the enchantment will sacrifice itself.

While chapter 2 and 3 may seem irrelevant compared to 1, Jund Food in particular makes full use of the card’s effects. Grabbing a Stomping Ground or Overgrown Tomb to fix its colors while ramping towards Korvold is certainly nice. Even nicer is giving Mayhem Devil deathtouch, turning it into a sniping machine capable of clearing an entire board in a single turn. As already mentioned, the saga sacrifices itself after the third chapter, granting us at least one Devil trigger. Imagine what else it can do if we also happen to have Cauldron Familiar and Witch's Oven in play…

The other deck where Binding the Old Gods is frequently played is Five-Color Niv-Mizzet: if Jund Food loves chapter 1 and 3, Niv-Mizzet decks prefer chapter 1 and 2. Playing 5 colors can be difficult, even more so if we’re planning on casting our spells on curve. Binding helps the deck a lot in finding the right colors at the right time, making sure Niv-Mizzet Reborn is easily castable.

While being very different decks, both Jund and 5C Niv can dig for the card and (hopefully) find it when they need it: being a permanent means that the card can be chosen through Trail of Crumbs, and being multicolored means that Niv-Mizzet Reborn itself can put it into our hand if it happens to be in the top 10 cards of the deck once the dragon comes into play.

According to the Historic Most Played Cards ranking (from now on the “HMPC”) from MTG Meta, Binding the Old Gods sits at #5 and is played in 23.3% of the format’s decks.

9 – Maelstrom Pulse

Coming up at number 9 we have Binding the Old Gods cousin: Maelstrom Pulse. Its ability to take out any nonland permanent on the battlefield for a relatively cheap cost, has made Pulse into one of the backbones of midrange decks in several formats and eras.

As we all know, flexibility is key, and that’s what makes Maelstrom Pulse stand out from the crowd. Whatever the problematic permanent may be, this card has got you covered. When trying to understand how valuable this trait is, think about the cards we often include in our sideboards: creature removal, artifact removal, enchantment removal… Pulse checks all those boxes and even more, turning it into a real silver bullet against many decks.

The cherry on top comes when our opponent has multiples of the same card on the battlefield, so if you’re being worn out by multiple Witch's Oven or if you’re staring down a board of flying Dragon's Rage Channeler, Maelstrom Pulse will generate that sweet card advantage that all midrange decks aim for, by taking them all out at once. As a friendly piece of advice, keep in mind that Pulse will also destroy your own permanents if they have the same name as the target you choose.

8 – Portable Hole

At number 8 we have the one and only artifact on the list: Portable Hole.

Life is rough for control decks, especially in a world where Path to Exile is not an option and answering early game threats is a must if we plan on staying alive until we can stabilize and turn the corner. Portable Hole filled a considerable gap that, especially for Azorius decks, had existed since the inception of the format. Getting to 4 (or more) mana for a wrath, especially given the popularity of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Elite Spellbinder, is not always a given. Portable Hole helped massively in bridging an otherwise lackluster early game with a very powerful late game.

While mostly used for creatures, Hole is a great answer to any of our opponent’s early game moves: Witch's Oven, Trail of Crumbs, Search for Azcanta, and Roiling Vortex are all problematic permanents that can generate endless value for our opponents. Thanks to Portable Hole’s versatility, we can now take care of those engines as well as exile any must answer creature threatening our life total.

Rarely ever a dead card, Portable Hole is also used as a sideboard option in many creature based decks, since removing a huge Trelasarra, Moon Dancer or Ravenous Squirrel can make the difference between life and death.

7 – Lightning Helix

A card that probably sits at number 1 in Craig Jones‘s heart, Lightning Helix places itself at 7 in our Top 10.

Together with its partner in crime Memory Lapse, Helix terrorized the Historic meta for months. At first seemingly irrelevant, the life gain is what pushes the card a tier above the rest.

Jeskai Control may have fallen out of favor in recent weeks, but Helix’s raw power is undeniable, and is one of the reasons why the deck is still definitely playable. As already mentioned when talking about Portable Hole, control decks need reliable ways to bridge their weak early game with their dominant late game. Helix’s strength comes from its ability to remove essentially any early game threat, while also padding our life total and effectively buying us an extra turn. Occasionally, in the closing stages of the game, the card can also be cast to target our opponent and speed up the clock by a turn.

Lightning Helix ranks at #19 in the HMPC, and is played in 13.3% of the format’s decks.

6 – Abrade

As a multi-format superstar, Abrade has cemented itself as one of Magic’s best sideboard options for any deck running red. In this list, it sits comfortably at number 6.

Once again, adaptability is the main reason for Abrade’s success: artifact hate and creature hate are essential parts of any sideboard; taking care of both things with a single card makes Abrade one of the best sideboard options in the format.

While in some matchups only one of its modes may be relevant, there are also plenty of cases in which the card will be useful in different situations. Your target could be Mayhem Devil or Witch's Oven, Ingenious Smith or Nettlecyst, a shark token or Torrential Gearhulk. Abrade has got your back in these situations and many more, making it a powerful card for the ages.

This flexibility frees up extra sideboard slots that can be dedicated to other matchups that might be more problematic for our deck.

5 – Wrath of God

Breaking into the Top 5 is a card so iconic that part of its name became a way to define board wipe effects: Wrath of God.

Effectively only played in control decks, Wrath of God (together with its functional sibling Day of Judgment) is a reset button capable of turning the tides of a whole game. Being able to obliterate all the pressure built up in several turns by aggro decks is something that control decks heavily rely on, and no card does it better than Wrath.

Due to the heavy presence of recursive threats and the somewhat high mana cost (often taxed by Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Elite Spellbinder), Wrath of God has seen a considerable drop in popularity in the past few months. This fact, coupled with the recent struggles of control decks, means that Wrath of God might be at an all time low in terms of power level.

Despite its newfound difficulties, Wrath of God remains a staple of control decks in Historic.

4 – Skyclave Apparition

The only creature on the list climbs all the way to number 4! Ladies and gentlemen: Skyclave Apparition.

Format defining and an automatic inclusion in any white-based creature deck, Skyclave Apparition is one of the pillars of Historic. For those problematic permanents that demand an immediate answer, the solution often lies in the powerful spirit from ZNR.

Whether your opponent has played Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Klothys, God of Destiny, Apparition takes care of the problem while also putting pressure on the board. Should they ever kill it, they would get a measly token that (hopefully) pales in comparison to the permanent previously exiled.

In mirror matches, or in creature matchups in general, the result often comes down to who draws more Skyclave Apparition and can make better use of them.

3 – Anger of the Gods

The first entry into the Top 3 is none other than the wrath of choice for the current meta: Anger of the Gods.

Currently Historic is being defined by decks that make full use of their graveyard, in part it’s thanks to recursive creatures. Whether your poison is Arclight Phoenix, Cauldron Familiar or Lurrus of the Dream-Den, chances are your deck is utilizing the graveyard for extra profit. A clean answer to all of these threats is Anger of the Gods.

Anger gained popularity when the meta was being dominated by Jeskai Control and Humans. Due to Thalia and friends, Jeskai looked for a cheaper option than Wrath of God, while Humans tried to tax it and outpace it. This back-and-forth went on until Memory Lapse was suspended, Jeskai tumbled and so did Humans. Coincidentally though, the “new” decks that arose found themselves also weak to an Anger of the Gods.

While Food decks are generally able to recover from an Anger of the Gods, its effects can be devastating against Phoenix and creature decks. The exile clause is often very relevant, and the ability to be played as early as turn 3 throws a big wrench into the gears of any aggro deck.

2 – Fatal Push

Coming up just short of first place is THE black removal spell: Fatal Push.

If you’re building a deck containing black, it doesn’t really matter what archetype you’re going for, because in the end you will always include any number of Pushes in your 75. Even in a format without fetchlands, where triggering Revolt is not a guarantee, the rate that Fatal Push offers is too good to pass up, especially in a meta filled with relevant 1 and 2 drops. Whether your target is an overgrown 8/8 Ravenous Squirrel or an extremely annoying Esper Sentinel, Push is going to do its job and take care of it.

While many archetypes in Historic struggle to activate the Revolt clause, Food decks have no trouble fulfilling it. Golgari Food in particular takes full advantage of it without needing to make any deck building concessions: a true match made in heaven. The deck already based its whole strategy around sacrificing creatures, food ,and treasure tokens to accrue more and more resources. All of this plays right into Fatal Push’s demands, effectively turning it into a 1 mana kill spell against the overwhelming majority of creatures.

Another shell where Push fits brilliantly is Rakdos Arcanist – turn 1 Fatal Push, turn 2 Dreadhorde Arcanist, turn 3 recur Fatal Push: a sequence that is often back-breaking for any creature deck and that is the bread and butter of Rakdos Midrange. Even if the deck doesn’t rely on sacrifice, the sheer power of a 1 mana removal spell is easily exploitable by Dreadhorde Arcanist itself.

Fatal Push ranks at #11 in the HMPC, and is played in 20% of the format’s decks.

1 – Unholy Heat

To no one’s surprise, the uncontested winner of our Top 10 is none other than Unholy Heat.

Historically speaking, Red has often had trouble dealing with big creatures and, in a way, planeswalkers. When faced with these threats, Red decks often needed to spend at least two spells to get rid of them, putting themselves at a card disadvantage and lowering the pressure they might have been putting on their opponent. All of these arguments were thrown out of the window with the printing of Unholy Heat.

SIX damage for ONE mana is an incredible rate, especially considering that activating delirium is trivial for most decks that play the card. Izzet Phoenix and Rakdos Arcanist, who already put plenty of effort into flooding their graveyards with cards, could not be any happier than this: an extremely cheap universal removal spell that goes hand in hand with their plan. In Phoenix’s case, Heat is yet another low-cost spell that helps them reach the critical number demanded by the birds, while also disrupting the opponent’s plan. In Arcanist’s case, Heat is one of the many good removal options to recur thanks to Dreadhorde Arcanist itself.

Unholy Heat’s ability to cleanly answer just about any threat has eliminated one of red’s main weaknesses, and even further diminished the need of black removal in any deck. Destroying a resolved Korvold, Teferi or Niv-Mizzet for just 1 mana seems somewhat unfair, and is one of the main reasons for Heat’s success.

Even when facing graveyard hate, or in decks where delirium is often inactive (like Jeskai Control), Unholy Heat remains a perfectly reasonable card. 2 damage is enough to kill most of the format’s problematic creatures for spell-heavy decks (Esper Sentinel and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben above all), particularly in the earlier stages of the game where most matchups are decided.

Unholy Heat ends up at rank #12 in the HMPC, appearing in 20% of the format’s decks.

Final Thoughts

Historic is a format filled with very good removal. Just because a certain card didn’t make it into the Top 10, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Vanishing Verse, Infernal Grasp, Brutal Cathar, Sweltering Suns, Shatterskull Smashing, Kolaghan's Command… The list of solid options goes on, and some decks may perform better with different choices than the ones appearing in this list.

What does your Top 10 look like? Which card’s rating do you most disagree with? Let me know!


Red mage since the early 2000's, Reto loves aggro and midrange, with the occasional sprinkle of combo here and there. After taking a long break from competitive, Arena has reignited his spark as he tries to find the next big thing in Historic. For suggestions or just a quick chat, feel free to reach him on Twitter.

2 Responses

  1. pharmakos says:

    Oh man, I feel like there’s at least a couple black cards missing from this list. Drown in the Loch as removal or counter, Vanishing Verse as two man’s exile. Among others.