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Why is There No Trusty Scalpel?

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Readers!

Trusty Machete is quite the Magic card. It did a lot of work in Zendikar Limited, especially in decks with fliers or creatures who got boosts from being equipped. What fit the flavor of a set based around exploring ancient ruins better? Later, it took on a second life when Magic inexplicably put Danny Trejo in a commercial and he started signing and selling copies of Trusty Machete on eBay because he played a character named Machete and that's some good memery. Trusty Machete is even played in a non-zero number of EDH decks currently which may not be correct but we get 99 spots to monkey with and if someone playing Sram or Valduk or Kemba wants to jam a meme card in their deck, who am I to tell them they're wrong? Machetes are great for all sorts of jobs, from cutting vines to hacking stumps to cutting the top off of a coconut, but not for ALL jobs.

Machetes are sharp-ish but they're made for hacking, not for slicing. No one has ever said "Get those machetes out of the autoclave, we're about to perform the appendectomy." Sometimes you want a surgical tool, and while a machete can deal more damage, it can deal a lot of collateral damage, too. A one-tool-for-every-job approach isn't always best in Commander and sometimes collateral damage is the only kind of damage that gets done. Sometimes a surgical approach will give much better results.

To illustrate my point, I recently played a webcam game where I found myself the Archenemy. I was playing my Estrid the Masked deck and the game had gone on quite long enough. The Muldrotha player had binned a Nevinyrral's Disk early in the game so I kept stealing Muldrotha to make sure he couldn't Disk my entire board. The turning point of the game came when the Ur-Dragon player was forced to Merciless Eviction for creatures to avoid being overrun and I was able to safely lay Helix Pinnacle and dig until I found my copy of The Chain Veil to make infinite mana with Estrid and put 100 counters on Pinnacle so that I could do everyone a favor and make this game end before the 2 hour mark. A Day of Judgment left me largely unscathed except it reverted control of Muldrotha back to its owner who immediately recast Nev's Disk.

Nev's Disk blew up my board but didn't deal with Estrid, merely blew up the totem armor on The Chain Veil and left me with Estrid with a gajillion counters, able to ultimate and bring the Pinnacle right back. That was A problem, but perhaps a bigger problem for the table is that Nev's Disk is a machete, not a scalpel, and it got everyone's permanents. The Dragons player had no Dragons. The Knights player had no Knights. After the Disk went off, I used Estrid to put the mask counter back on Chain Veil, made 100 mana, used Estrid's Ultimate, got back all of my Enchantments from the 'yard, threw 100 more counters on Pinnacle and passed the turn. The Dragon player played a Dragon and passed, the Knight player played a Knight and passed and Muldrotha player realized that if you want help from the other 2 players at the table in killing the Archenemy, you might not want to nuke all of their creatures.

A Merciless Eviction likely would have ended the game. It not only would have dealt with my Shrouded win condition, it would have left a few beatsticks on the table to take me down with. Do I think people should run Cleanfall just in case decks like mine become common? No, but I think there are cards that are a little more like a scalpel and less like a machete and they perhaps deserve a second look. Removal, both prescriptive and preventative, can be overlooked by Magic players and can lead to situations where a player gets ahead and no one can ever catch up. I want to look at a few cards I consider "scalpels" so you're not left trying to use a machete to perform surgery. Believe it or not, there are times where you don't want to destroy every single permanent on the board. I know, right?

Control Magic et al.

Control Magic

I realize my love of stealing things from opponents is well known and I sound like a bit of a broken record, but in the example game where I stole Muldrotha rather than killing it, I kept my opponent off of Nev's Disk for many, many turns. Most removal on commanders puts it right back in the command zone which doesn't solve the problem permanently. Removal like Darksteel Mutation and, soon, Oubliette that keeps the commander from coming back is much more useful than a Go for the Throat or something similar. I'd argue that having access to that commander's abilities yourself is even better since you are depriving them of the card, forcing them to spend their own removal on their own card if they want it back and you're gaining a useful creature. I could have cast Day of Judgment to kill Muldrotha, my Argothian Enchantress and a few Knights and Dragons, but instead I got a creature out of it and was able to replay a lot of my spent Enchantments. I say this every week, but you need to run more ways to steal their stuff and with Helm of Possession being colorless, any deck can do it.

One final aside, a previous time I played that Estrid deck, Sheldon Menery responded by casting his maindeck Aura Thief. It's not just me who thinks stealing stuff and being able to deal with Enchantments are both good ideas.

Merciless Eviction

Merciless Eviction

I was lucky to bait out Eviction because it would have wiped me out, but for the purposes of that game, Evicting my annoying board full of misery cards and leaving some creatures around to beat me with would have made that game end much differently. Eviction is such a powerful card because you can play around it, it lets most people keep most things and can deal with untargetable and resurrectable cards. It's almost a waste to use this on Creatures since so many other things deal with Creatures, including other Creatures. You can almost always get 3 permanents from every player if you name Artifact or Enchantment and that's going to benefit you more in the long-term than naming creatures. Everyone can deal with creatures, but those same players will act annoyed at WotC for printing Smothering Tithe as they let it generate tokens for 40 turns while they cast Wrath after Wrath to get 3 creatures total. This may cut a wide swath of destruction through the board state but its application is surgical - you cut out what needs cut out and leave the rest to play a game of Magic with. Not everything need be a Jokulhaups.

Nullmage Shepherd

Nullmage Shepherd

The activation to this may seem steep but you're in tokens colors. Besides, compare this to Tradewind Rider, a very fair and impactful card that also had a high activation cost and didn't solve problems nearly as decisively. Every Green deck should consider this, and if you're running Cryptolith Rite, you have literally no excuse not to run this and that's something I'm guilty of myself.

Windgrace's Judgment/Decimate/Casualties of War

Windgrace's Judgment
Decimate
Casualties of War

Targeting the worst permanent for each player is the dream. A lot of these removal spells leave creatures alive and that's sort of counterintuitive to some players, but it's deliberate. Everyone thinks a lot about how to deal with creatures and unless you're the archenemy, you can count on your opponents to deal with creatures for you. You will have blockers, you'll have some creature removal spells and everyone will have Wrath effects. Make sure there is someone at the table who can deal with an annoying non-creautre, non-land permanent. It is sometimes unfair if that always has to be you, but the alternative is living in a world where no one is prepared and we don't want that for ourselves.

Cleansing Nova/Austere Command

Cleansing Nova
Austere Command

At this point, we might as well discuss modal cards that are both machete and scalpel, depending on your need. This is a lot of firepower if you're trying to deal with one Enchantment with Shroud, but in a pinch these can get other things, including creatures, and it makes no sense to not run these over Wrath of God effects in my opinion. The modality gives you so much flexibility and the mana difference is trivial - this isn't Standard where you're dead on turn five unless you clear the board.

Are there more? Of course. My job isn't to give you an exhaustive list of cards that will work in a fringe situation where I can't be stopped from bringing back a Helix Pinnacle and need to be murdered with Commander damage, though. My job is to get you thinking about demanding more flexibility from your removal, and packing fewer blunt instruments. Wrath of God will kill your opponent's Consecrated Sphinx, but so will Retribution of the Meek and Retribution will leave your creatures alive. Personally, I think you should use one of those creatures with under 4 power to sac to Helm of Possession to teach them a hard lesson about putting Sphinx in their deck, but not everyone agrees. We can all agree that the right tool for the job gives you a better outcome. Ditch the blunt instruments and start packing a few laser-guided ones. If 3 people over 2 turns can't deal the Archenemy 23 damage because you had to blow up everyone's creatures to get one of their Enchantments, the Archenemy deserved that W.

I want to (briefly) put some of these new ideas into practice and what better place for that than a new deck? Here's one based around Niambi, Esteemed Speaker.

Niambi smarter about removal by Jason Alt

Be Smart about Revomal | Commander | Jason Alt


Modal boardwipes can deal with the exact problem you're having and I included a few ways to take problem permanents off their part of the board and make them less of a problem for you by putting them on your part of the board. Feel free to increase the number of those effects as much as you want - it's not just a way to scale the power level of your deck to theirs, it's also a very effective way to make sure they can't keep recasting their commander or force you to kill your own creatures to kill some of theirs. Sometimes you want a blunt instrument to do a ton of damage to the board to keep you safe, but if you're like Danny Trejo in the movie Machete and you have a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem, you'll end up like Danny Trejo's character in that movie who I assume dies? I haven't seen it. Am I basing that off of his basically identical character in Desperado? I might be. Man, Desperado was sweet. I'm going to go watch Desperado and tune up some of my decks. Until next time!

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