Strategy be damned, key toolsets finds their way into nearly all Commander decks. Ramp to keep ahead on mana. Card advantage to prevent running out of gas. An actual win condition to, ya know, win. All necessary components to make the '99 tick. Yet each of these only works to advance your game plan. No matter how much mana you produce or how many cards you draw, there are three other players looking to do the same. And if they see you getting too far ahead, they'll aim to take those resources down. Or take you down. Conversely, if one of your opponent's begins the game with an early head start (looking at you, Sol Ring), you'll want the means to bring them down to size before they leap too far ahead of everyone else. And that's where the all-important element of interaction comes into play. It doesn't matter how grand your strategies are if you lack the ability to respond to danger.
And one of the most popular forms of interaction, accessible to all colors in their own flavor, is removal.
With hundreds of options to choose from, it's easy to fall back on the kill-spells that have become Commander staples. The Swords to Plowshares, Chaos Warps, and Deadly Rollicks of the world are popular for a reason: They're either amazingly efficient or able to tackle a large variety of threats. Plenty of other interesting, powerful options for removal dwell in the shadow of such contenders, and it's these overlooked artillery shells we're here to explore today. What unique, interesting, or useful forms of spot removal have been condemned to the bulk bins of the world when they should be out shooting down dragons?
Let's start our journey via examination of what qualities make for solid-to-great removal, then apply those principles to some examples I feel are underrated. One bonus of underrated cards is how they're frequently on budget, and that holds true for today's overlooked removal. The most expensive is only $2.50. Most of the others are $1 or less. So even if that Deadly Rollick is outside your price range, you've plenty of substitutions on hand to fill the void.
Qualities to Look for in Commander Removal
Note: Today's entry will focus mainly on spot removal. Underrated pieces of mass removal will be featured in the next article, so stay tuned!
1. Mana Efficiency: Ex. Path to Exile, Terminate. The cheaper the mana value, the sooner we can cast the spell, the more spells we can cast before/after it, and the less mana we'll need to hold open if we suspect a threat will be coming our way in the near future.
3. Versatility: Ex. Vindicate, Chaos Warp. What sorts of card types can the removal spell hit? The more, the better, as it'll lower the odds of the spell becoming a 'dead card' with no viable targets. Also, to consider is the finality of the removal. Putting the target in the graveyard allows more opportunities for an opponent to recur it later than if it were Exiled (Anguished Unmaking) or shuffled back within the library (Chaos Warp).
4. Targeting Restrictions: Ex. Doom Blade, Decimate. Are there specific conditions a removal spell needs in order to eliminate a threat? Can it only target cards of a certain color (Doom Blade) or that are performing a certain action (Immolating Glare))? Decimate, for all its tempting 4-for-1 potential, requires a permanent of each specified type to target anything. Sacrifice effects hold an interesting place here, as their lack of targeting allows them to get around things like Protection and Indestructible, but if multiple cards meet the condition at once, your opponent isn't likely to sacrifice your intended quarry (Ex. Diabolic Edict).
5. Drawback: Ex. Beast Within, Vendetta. Often, removal balances cheap casting cost, speed, and/or versatility via a drawback. How good such removal is depends on how steep the drawback. Can you afford to lose the life via Vendetta, or can you effectively block that 3/3 token Beast Within is sure to see coming your way? Commander's higher life totals often mitigate these concerns, but keep them in mind.
6. X-for-1 Potential: Ex. Malicious Affliction. Card advantage is king, so any removal spell with the potential to eliminate multiple threats in one swoop warrants attention. Even better are when these targets are of different types (Orim's Thunder), letting you tackle different varieties of threat.
7. Bonus Effects: Ex. Death Sprout. Card advantage need not always stem from killing more than one target with a single kill spell. Sometimes, removal card provide other forms of advantage alongside nixing a threat. Sometimes this bonus can be gravy, like a life boost (Exile), but other times it can ramp your mana Death Sprout, damage the opponent (Phthisis), or add to your army (Entrapment Manuever).
We'll consider each of these qualities as we go over what I feel are ten underrated and undervalued spot removal spells in Commander. Some of these spells have niche applications, but can really shine when given the right synergy. Others are simply efficient workhorses that deserve far more attention then they currently hold.
We begin our journey all the way back in Tempest, when Blood Frenzy poised an interesting dilemma. Do you hit your opponent for extra damage, but lose your attacker at the end of combat? Or do you allow an enemy attacker to deal you extra damage once, but you'll never have to worry about it again? This card's been errata'd to only allow targeting prior to damage being dealt, so don't think you can pull trickery by targeting an enemy creature after its already hit you for its base stats. This doesn't seem like an appealing card at first glance, until you realize that Commander has two other players for your opponent to attack. And you want them all dead. Suddenly Blood Frenzy offers some tantalizing political applications. If an opponent sends a creature you want dead at another opponent, you now have the opportunity to both kill that creature and have it deal an extra 4 damage to the opponent it was attacking. All for the price of only 2-mana and at Instant speed. Alternatively, you can still target your own creatures with Blood Frenzy, allowing you to squeeze in those last points of Commander damage if you really need to.
Though it comes in at a pricier 4 mana, Astarion's Thirst is a synergistic removal spell for any deck looking to grow their general into Voltron. This is battlecruiser-Magic spot removal, where their loss is your bloody gain. Instant speed, the ability to hit any creature, and exiling the target are all hallmarks of quality removal, and this spell comes with the added bonus of boosting your Commander with +1/+1 counters equivalent to the power of the target. A flavorful vampiric feast that turns an opposing threat into a potentially lethal set of stats for your own commander, especially if you're targeting an already-buffed up opposing Voltron commander. Sure, there'll be occasions when killing an enemy creature provides only a handful of counters, but the threat will still be removed for good. 4 mana still sound too high for a removal spell? How about we cut that price tag in half...
Oh, what a difference that two-mana reduction makes. We've increased our mana efficiency, but at the cost of Instant speed and the placement of +1/+1 counters. There's also an additional targeting restriction to consider, as your opponent will need two creatures for this spell to work. One to get the axe, the other to receive a +2/+2 boost. While these drawbacks may seem steep, when you stop and consider what you're giving away for the 2-mana price of exiling an enemy creature for good, Cannibalize begins to resemble Generous Gift and Beast Within, both considered top-tier removal in Commander. Just as the 3/3 token is often more than worth the cost of blowing up a problematic permanent, Cannibalize's pair of +1/+1 counters going onto an enemy creature will often be a minor consequence. Your opponent's weakest creature will be on the one getting the counters. There's also the option to target your own army. Grisly as it may seem, you could use this spell to feed your Commander one of your own creature token, and if your deck is Aristocrat-centric, perhaps reap some death-trigger value while you're at it.
Flexibility is Magic's greatest hidden mechanic, and Order // Chaos is one in a long line of versatile spells that play better than they look. While the removal half of this card does permanently exile a threat, it comes at a 4-mana cost and with a targeting restriction. Albeit one that doesn't care which player the attacker is going after, so you could save one opponent from another's creature. Political currency is important. Still, on its own, an over-costed Kill Shot would be largely relegated to Limited formats, but the other side of the card provides redemption. For decks looking to go-wide with damage or sneak a massive Commander through for the kill, Order // Chaos offers up an offensive option to complement its defensive half. Don't hesitate to exile a nasty attacker coming your way, as even the most impressive board states matter little when you're too dead to win with them. But if your army is poised to deliver the final blow, removing the ability to block from all creatures on-board will be a nasty surprise. All creatures lose the ability to block, so if your army is big enough, you might just eliminate all three of your foes in one tactical swoop.
While on the topic of flexibility, let's revisit a card we discussed in a prior article on underrated Commander gems. Hide // Seek provides two Instant-speed options at a low price. Deck requirements are a bit trickier, as this is essentially a 3-color card, but for those builds that can run it, both options are useful. The 'Hide' side will likely be the mode you select most often, as there's no shortage of juicy artifacts and enchantments to rid yourself of in this format. Even better, the Disenchant-effect does more than simply destroy its target. Tucking away a card to the bottom of its owner's library makes it incredibly inaccessible outside of tutoring-effects. Think of the 'Seek' side as more of a precision tool, able to slice away a pivotal combo piece before it's draw. It can also provide an Instant-speed shuffle effect if your opponent uses a 'topdeck-tutor' (Mystical Tutor, Worldly Tutor, etc.), whisking the newly-searched card back into their library before they ever get a chance to draw it. Or you could find an opponent's most expensive card and exile it for a boost of life if you find yourself in imminent danger. In all, a very useful suite of options packed into a single piece of cardboard.
This is likely the most well-known of today's removal spells, but I'd argue it should see even greater play than it already is. One could argue that it's a near auto-include in any Gruul deck, and probably most Temur, Jund, and Naya ones, too. Hull Breach may not run at Instant speed, but it's incredibly efficient at 2 mana and will provide a two-for-one 90% of the time. But unlike the previously-discussed Cannibalize, Hull Breach doesn't come with a targeting restriction that requires you to aim at two separate permanents. You could always take out a single artifact or enchantment if it's the only target available. Sure, it's not optimal, but if the alternative is giving your opponent a huge early-game advantage on mana (Ex. Sol Ring) or cards (Ex. Rhystic Study), it's so much better to snap that Hull Breach off than to wait for a second target.
Arrest effects have a unique strength in Commander, as while their Enchantment-bound nature makes them more vulnerable, they do what most other removal cannot: bypass the Command zone. A player who's general is locked down via Prison Term doesn't have the option to simply recast it. The enchantment needs to be dealt with before attacking, blocking, or activated abilities open up again. That's useful against certain commanders, but the problem is that Prison Term won't shut off triggered or static abilities, so cards like Teysa Karlov will still do their thing. So why does Prison Term make our list? It can hop around as needed. Its slower speed and three-mana casting cost hurt far less when you can toss it on a smaller creature in the early game, then move it to more dangerous threats as they come along. This means you don't have to worry about holding onto this spell and deploying it at a pivotal moment that. What's better, cards like this impact how your opponents play out threats, often forcing them to hold back and slow down. All the while, you'll have your mana open to continue developing your board.
Getting the most of out of Grab the Reins does require a whopping 7 mana, but the payoff has the potential to slay an opponent, much less their best creature. Without Entwine, you're getting either a more-expensive Act of Treason (only without the untap, so be careful with your timing!) or Fling. In the right circumstances, both effects are useful. One side lets you bash an opponent with their best creature, and few things are as satisfying as killing an opponent via Commander damage from their own commander. Or, if you have a gigantic beast on hand and only need to deal those last points of damage to win, the Fling-effect can provide the needed reach. Once the game goes late, you get the best of both worlds. Pump enough mana into this spell, and suddenly your foe's best creature is now getting flung directly at their face. You're dealing damage and getting rid of the threat simultaneously. Sadly, you're not able to both attack with the stolen creature and then fling it for double the damage. The target is stolen and immediately turned into a projectile. But if its big enough, it's a projectile that'll take its controller down with it.
Exodus saw Disenchant split into two repeatable options. Allay and Shattering Pulse can only hit a single permanent type, but keep the Instant speed and efficient mana value of Disenchant. Less flexible, but once you hit 5-mana, each receives a huge bonus factor. Buyback allows you to fire off Allay and Shattering Pulse as often as you're willing to pony up the mana. This blends well with Instant speed, allowing you to keep lands open until the end of your opponent's turn, then nixing their best artifact/enchantment right before going to your turn to untap. All the while, you haven't spent a single piece of cardboad. Allay or Shattering Pulse go right back to your hand. Like Hull Breach, don't hesitate to snap off these spells without their Buyback costs if a dangerous artifact/enchantment is making the game miserable. Tempting as it may be to feed Buyback, look at it more as a Kicker cost, excellent to have when available, but not required. Like Kicker cards, Allay and Shattering Pulse have the flexibility to be played at two different casting costs, making them useful in different ways as the game progresses.
Our final card of the day is an odd duck, as it blurs the line between removal spell and sweeper. This card does have the potential to generate X-for-1 advantage, even in the double-digits. However, Fade Away won't always work, as your opponents might have open mana or a low number of creatures to begin with. It is unlikely that they'll see this sort of effect coming from the Islands on your side of the table. Chances are, if you're playing Fade Away, you're on team spell-slinger, low on your own creature count and thus concerned about enemy attackers. For you, enemy go-wide strategies or creature synergies (Slivers, for example) can be a nightmare, so for 3 mana, Fade Away offers the possibility to tax away those armies. Or at least severely hurt your opponents' other resources. As a sorcery, it's slower than you'd probably want, but the sacrifice effect does get around protective aspects like Shroud and Hexproof. Your mileage on Fade Away may vary, but when it really goes off, you can bet it'll make for one hell of a story.
Cannibalize by Robert Bliss
Some folks take the Keto diet too far
At the end of the day, despite whatever efficiency or price tag a removal spell brings to the table, an answer's an answer. If it keeps you alive from enemy threats, it has merit, even if it appears to be draft chaff on the surface. I hope today's adventure has opened your eyes to some of the inner-workings of what makes for interesting, effective removal. And hopefully given you ideas for some underrated cards to try in your own decks. I encourage you to keep digging for more obscure, overlooked spells, as Magic: The Gathering's got quite the catalogue to go through. With more and more Commander product coming out by the day, the torrent's not about to slow any time soon, so many more interesting options are right around the corner.
Join us next time as we explore the world of underrated mass-removal spells!
Thanks for reading, and may you always have that answer when you need it most.