Riley's Modern Life: Mono-Coloured Removal Primer

13 min read

Given the openness and diversity of Modern at the moment, you’re going to be able to find a viable deck that suits your playstyle preferences – and like a bridezilla at a wedding expo, you’re not going to have to compromise on your colour choice, either. All five colours can make compelling arguments as to why you should play them, although I would argue that blue is a little bit behind the others – while green is flexing away in a Tapout shirt and tribal tats, blue is stickytaping its nerdy glasses back together and muttering something about unbanning Jace.

As diverse as the format is, it’s very clear that Modern is heavily creature-based. Controlling the board is what makes or breaks games of Modern, and whether you’re looking to flood it or keep it clear, the most critical element after the creatures themselves is of course the removal you might want to use against them. The role of removal in Modern has shifted pretty significantly over the past few years, both through the natural evolution of the format and the addition of powerful new options in recent sets. Today, it’s time to whack the five colours under the microscope and talk about the best removal in each slice of the colour pie.

White: Path to Exile

path to exile

Path to Exile asks no questions and tells no lies – you point it at a creature, and it goes away. Widely identified as a critical component of today’s Modern format, it offers white decks a clean answer to some of the monstrous beaters they have to contend with, from [mtg_card]Death’s Shadow[/mtg_card] to [mtg_card]Primeval Titan[/mtg_card].

Absolutely unconditional removal at the cost of one mana – and at instant speed, to boot – isn’t going to come without some kind of a cost, and Path’s can be a steep one. Giving your opponent a free land is sometimes a downside that outstrips the benefits of removing the creature itself, especially in the early game. This means Path to Exile is a highly nuanced card, and harder to correctly deploy than a fart during a one-night stand.

Path to Exile suffers highly in the opening turns of the game, especially against decks who can punish you severely for giving them access to an extra land. Aggressive decks like Affinity and Burn are never too unhappy to have their [mtg_card]Arcbound Ravager[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Goblin Guide[/mtg_card] get hit by a Path, as it means you’re aiding their gameplan of getting their hand empty as soon as possible. Green-Black based decks are often equally unconcerned to trade their turn-two Tarmogoyf for a basic land, especially early as their raw card quality is so high that they quickly threaten to leave you in the dust.

Path’s real strength is, of course, that it removes absolutely anything. Hexproof and Protection notwithstanding, Path will politely show the door to any creature that’s giving you problems. In a format overrun by huge monsters, having a removal spell that doesn’t discriminate is a huge advantage. Converted mana cost, power and toughness, persist – it doesn’t matter: Path takes care of business.

Where Path to Exile shines brightest is against bigger or slower decks -it goes to town on monstrous Eldrazi, rampaging Titans, and mana-intensive Colonnades. Naturally, the longer the game goes against any deck, the better Path becomes – an extra land on turn two gives them a 50% boost in available mana, while letting them fetch out a basic on turn seven is about as irrelevant as the old pre-fetch scry.

The other interesting way Path to Exile influences the format is when it comes to deckbuilding. It’s one of many key cards – amongst [mtg_card]Ghost Quarter[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Blood Moon[/mtg_card], and the like, that highly incentivises players to include sufficient basics. It isn’t worth getting greedy – while basic lands might be the brussel sprouts of the format, you can’t just gorge yourself on delicious duals. You’ve got to eat those greens, like mum always said! If your opponent is playing a three-colour deck, they’re probably only running two or so basics – that means once both are in play, every Path from there on out is a juiced-up [mtg_card]Swords to Plowshares[/mtg_card]. Claymores to Plowshares? Perhaps not. That one probably needed more time in the oven.

Honourable Mention:

condemn mtg card

Condemn is equally as indiscriminate as Path insofar as it ignores toughness, indestructibility, converted mana cost, and so on. The price is right, too – but the creature having to attack means it loses major points, especially against utility creatures like [mtg_card]Devoted Druid[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Steel Overseer[/mtg_card].

Blue: Snapcaster Mage

snapcaster mage

Nowhere on this card does it have the word “remove”, “destroy”, or “exile” (fine, yes, it does technically say “exile” in the reminder text, you nerd) – but in my view, this card is the best removal spell that blue has to offer. This is not a poorly-constructed joke about the best blue removal spell being a rubbish Ambush Viper, although the secret snake mode on old Snip Snap comes in very handy – Snapcaster Mage is not just the best blue removal spell, or the best blue card overall. It is, in fact, the best card in Modern, although in the worst colour.

What does this have to do with it being a removal spell? Snapcaster Mage is an exceptional removal spell due to the fact that it should give you access to the exact card you need in any given situation. Decks built around Snapcaster Mage will give themselves the tools they need to navigate any situation, and being able to flashback any card in a stacked ‘yard provides you with flexibility and efficiency – all while continuing to develop the board. Flashing back anything from Path to Exile to (spoiler alert) [mtg_card]Fatal Push[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card] means that your already excellent removal spells are working a double shift, helping you push further ahead as you gain more value than a post-buyout [mtg_card]Lion’s Eye Diamond[/mtg_card].

There are obvious limitations to the card, however. It does very little as a removal spell before turns three or four, and more or less necessitates two- or three-colour decks. When you think about some of the most powerful cards to flash back – [mtg_card]Kolaghan’s Command[/mtg_card] is the immediate frontrunner – that necessarily places huge restrictions on how your deck is being put together.

It goes further, too – while you can jam Path to Exile in more or less any white deck and feel like a clever deckbuilder, Snapcaster Mage is a little more discerning. He warps decks around him, demanding a critical mass of cheap, interactive spells before he will hit his straps. Additionally, he pays the price of being in the worst colour. Blue lags behind the other colours in Modern, and just like [mtg_card]Monastery Mentor[/mtg_card] in Vintage, Snapcaster is an exceptional card in a mediocre colour.

Even with these factors, however, Snapcaster Mage is still one of the most powerful cards printed in recent years and strongly bolsters any spell-based deck, and for that reason – as odd as it may sound – it is the best that blue has to offer when talking about building an effective removal suite.

Honourable Mention:

cryptic command

[mtg_card]Cryptic Command[/mtg_card] – This card’s biggest strength is of course its flexibility, and bouncing a key permanent at the opportune moment can completely turn games around. While it may not immediately leap off the page as a “removal” spell, if you don’t give it the nod then we’re into [mtg_card]Psionic Blast[/mtg_card] territory. Yes – it’s Modern legal, and no, I couldn’t believe it either!

Black: Fatal Push

fatal push mtg card

The most recent addition to our rogue’s gallery, Fatal Push had an immediate and very significant impact on the format as soon as it was released in Aether Revolt. On raw efficiency, it’s difficult to overlook Fatal Push, and already we see the format begin to favour higher-costed creatures in response to this new piece of technology.

Delve creatures like His Bananariffic Majesty [mtg_card]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/mtg_card] and Eldrazi like old mate [mtg_card]Reality Smasher[/mtg_card] look to contest the power of Fatal Push, and this trend has only continued to punish poor old Lightning Bolt, as we’ll come to in a moment. Despite this movement, the average converted mana cost of Modern remains very low, and definitely in the range of black mages doing their spirited impersonations of King Leonidas and booting dudes over ledges.

This card kills more or less every creature that has traditionally dominated Modern – from [mtg_card]Tarmogoyf[/mtg_card] to [mtg_card]Arcbound Ravager[/mtg_card], from [mtg_card]Goblin Guide[/mtg_card] to creaturelands. The fact that it costs just a single black mana means it often trades up on cost against the creature it’s destroying – but further, it’s easier to hold up and threaten as a big spanner to your opponent’s works. Fatal Push re-set (or, if you will, pushed) the bar to new heights when it comes to efficiency and effectiveness, and has caused black decks to stop relying on a second colour for their removal. [mtg_card]Terminate[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Abrupt Decay[/mtg_card] have both seen their stocks fall in the wake of this new kid on the block.

While discussing Path to Exile we established that one-mana, instant-speed removal doesn’t come without some kind of downside, and Fatal Push is no exception. However the downside on Fatal Push is not, in broad terms, too severe – and here’s why. Firstly, most creatures played in Modern still have a converted mana cost of one or two, and this is just part of the “turn four” nature of the format. Secondly, more expensive creatures are still strongly threatened by Fatal Push, as enabling Revolt is as simple as cracking a fetchland – the cornerstone of Modern mana bases. This means that you can’t reasonably expect a creature costing three or four to survive against Fatal Push.

Fatal Push’s key failing, and it isn’t a particularly significant one, is that it is a stone-cold blankerino against creatures costing five or more. In Modern, this is not a very long list – if you’re confident you have other answers to [mtg_card]Gurmag Angler[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Primeval Titan[/mtg_card], then there’s no reason not to rely heavily on Fatal Push for everything else. Fatal Push might just be the best removal spell in the format, and it continues to shape the direction of the format as more and more players look for ways to play expensive creatures.

Honourable Mention:

fnm promo dismember mtg card

Which member? [mtg_card]Dismember[/mtg_card]. This card is also a one-mana kill-almost-anything card, but the quick and aggressive nature of the format mean that both the four life or three mana modes on this card aren’t always hugely appetising, and it definitely can’t be relied upon in multiples.

Red: Lightning Bolt

lightning bolt mtg card

Poor [mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card]! Once the most-played card in the format, Bolt went full Wolf of Wall Street and has had a spectacular fall from grace. Fatal Push and Path to Exile have usurped its title and drunk its milkshake, leaving it… well, leaving it being pointed dome-wards and winning GPs. Not such a bad result. The reality of the situation is that three damage just will not cut it in today’s Modern, and despite its cheap cost and huge flexibility, Bolt has gone the way of its namesake sprinter and retired from the spotlight.

Fatal Push has a lot to do with this, but perhaps the card that has undone Bolt’s fortunes the most is [mtg_card]Death’s Shadow[/mtg_card]. This card slept like a sea monster in the Mariana Trench, and now that its slumber has come to an end it has become the scourge of the Modern format – and former heroes like Lightning Bolt haven’t been able to keep up with the times.

It has been an interesting reversal – previously, playing creatures with three toughness was a liability, because of course they “die to Bolt”. Today, playing Lightning Bolt can be a liability because there just aren’t enough creatures that die to it. How the tables have turned! This, in turn, opens up the door to play creatures that line up poorly against Lightning Bolt, as they all die the same to Path and Push. Will we see a cyclical progression back to Bolt being excellent? Time will tell, but it’s safe to say that right now, Lightning Bolt’s stocks are at an all-time low.

Nonetheless, Lightning Bolt still has a lot going for it. Despite lining up terribly against threats like Thought-Knot Seer the Ondrej Strasky Invitational Card, it can still tussle with a percentage of early creatures from many decks. When you consider cards like [mtg_card]Goblin Guide[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Inkmoth Nexus[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Baral, Chief of Compliance[/mtg_card], you can see that Lightning Bolt isn’t by any means the most useless piece of cardboard.

The real strength of the card is in its flexibility: Lightning Bolt does something that not many other removals spells can – it can pressure planeswalkers by going to the dome. Additionally, there are very few cards that can read “R: Win the game”, but if your opponent is on three or fewer, Lightning Bolt does just that. You can’t ignore the opportunities that opens up to steal games out of nowhere.

I don’t know that Lightning Bolt is out for the count, but to put things in perspective with a wider example – Abzan, and not Jund, is the favoured flavour of Green-Black decks looking for a third colour. We may see the wheel turn back around, and if it does, Bolt will be ready. Don’t forget, it’s still the cleanest and most efficient way to deal direct damage in the entire game.

Honourable Mention:

grim lavamancer mtg card

[mtg_card]Grim Lavamancer[/mtg_card] – not many red cards let you grind as hard as this bloke. Turning graveyard cards – not traditionally a resource that red mages look to exploit – into a repeatable [mtg_card]Shock[/mtg_card] effect is huge game, taking apart smaller creature decks.

Green: Hornet Sting

hornet sting mtg card

Green mages are not in the business of answers. Green mages are in the business of questions. For example, questions like:

  • “Can you deal with my two-mana 4/5?”
  • “What do you think of me having infinite mana on turn three?”
  • “How do you tie shoelaces again?”

When you look at green-based decks in Modern, there’s a very clear pattern that emerges. These decks either play a second (or third) colour for access to removal, or they do not play removal at all.

The threats in green midrange decks run the full spectrum: they are efficient ([mtg_card]Tarmogoyf[/mtg_card]), disruptive ([mtg_card]Scavenging Ooze[/mtg_card]), or resilient ([mtg_card]Kitchen Finks[/mtg_card]). Green’s approach to board control is creature-based and not spell-based, and for that reason they either look to other colours for removal, or eschew it altogether. Abzan and Jund splash for Path and Bolt respectively to accompany their Pushes, whereas decks like Scapeshift often forgo interaction altogether.

The closest green comes to actual, real-world removal is with something like [mtg_card]Beast Within[/mtg_card], but that’s generally just a last resort card for glass cannon decks like [mtg_card]Living End[/mtg_card] that can’t win through certain permanents. In fact, I would argue that paying three mana and giving your opponent a 3/3 is just about the opposite of a “removal” spell in many cases.

The fact that blue lacks hard removal and green lacks removal of any kind is a crucial aspect of the format, and indeed underpins the philosophy of the colour pie in a broader sense. Green – arguably the strongest colour in the format – certainly doesn’t need any further aid to strengthen its grip on Modern battlefields around the world. Indeed, green’s slice of the colour pie is already generous, with the best cards when it comes to powerful creatures, mana ramp and fixing, and more recently even card advantage and selection engines like [mtg_card]Collected Company[/mtg_card].

Green’s ongoing lack of removal is a foundation of not just the Modern format but Magic as a whole, and provides very important tension that can be leveraged by clever deckbuilders and skilled players alike. Don’t weep too bitterly for the lack of removal in green – and remember that when looking at multicoloured green removal spells, they don’t come much better. That, however, is a topic for another day!

Honourable mention:

[mtg_card]Woodfall Primus[/mtg_card] – wait, no, it says noncreature. Oops.

The role and relative strengths of different removal spells significantly influences the evolution of Modern. Reviewing the removal available in each individual colour gives us an important overview as to the position Modern occupies at the moment, especially given that the format is currently so heavily dominated by creatures. It also provides some perspective on which creatures are well positioned to thrive – Lightning Bolt’s diminishing popularity may mean that x/3s can come out to play again, while Path to Exile gives you a reason to play plenty of basics. Fatal Push encourages you to play larger creatures, and the presence of Snapcaster Mage means blue can support spell-based decks in going long.

There’s another important area to investigate when exploring removal in Modern – multicoloured cards! I’ll get across them in a future article, so I want to know: which gold removal spells do you think are most influential on Modern? Do you disagree with Path / Snapcaster / Push / Bolt / Nothing? Let me know on Twitter, @rileyquarytower, and while you’re there make sure you follow @mtgdotone!

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