We have all sorts of shorthands we use when we evaluate cards. There are the obvious ones, like calling something a “bomb” – a term that usually gets reserved for Limited, but can have pretty broad application for any format. Then we have those opaque statements like, “most of the time, this card does nothing.”

Check out Surgical Extraction:

Most of the time, this card does nothing.

Today, I’m going to talk about what that means, and why it’s true.

So unfair!

Today I’m talking about what I’ll call “extraction effects.” This is the family of cards that rummages through your opponent’s deck and removes cards from it. The members of that family include:

 

That’s quite a list. The most “pure” forms of this effect are cards like Cranial Extraction, which I’ve chosen as the eponym for the entire category.

To many of us, our first feeling about this kind of effect is that it’s amazing, or, to put it another way, unfair.

But that’s not really true.

A quick aside for the experienced player. You almost certainly understand the ideas in today’s piece already. If this is all new to you, then that’s cool, too. If not, then you can point newer players to it when they ask why you don’t just run four copies of Surgical Extraction in every deck under the sun.

Your first Jester’s Cap

I recall the first time I saw a Jester’s Cap. Ice Age had just been released, and the Cap felt like one of the flagship cards from the set. It did something we hadn’t seen so far in the core set, Antiquities, Arabian Nights, or Legends.

It took cards from your opponent’s deck.

We’ve already seen cards being removed from the game – exiled, that is – already. Swords to Plowshares has been doing that since day one. But at its most visceral level, Jester’s Cap felt like it did something grossly unfair.

Maybe you’ve felt that response on seeing the newly spoiled Surgical Extraction, or when you first laid eyes on Memoricide, Thought Hemorrhage, or one of their relatives. It’s understandable, and it’s a form of basic Magic psychology that we’ve heard the designers and developers talk about before.

Even worse than countermagic

People like to play their spells.

For most players, it is significantly more satisfying to cast a creature and then have it killed than it is to cast it and have it countered. Consider this comparison:

In the counterspell scenario, your opponent has burned a card and three mana to make sure you don’t have a creature. In the Go for the Throat scenario, they spent two mana and a card to achieve the same goal. In other words, you actually “profited” less from the Go for the Throat scenario, but if you’re a typical Magic player, you found it less frustrating anyway.

How much more frustrating is it, then, to never even cast the spell in the first place? This is why the extraction effect feels so nasty when it is used against you. And by the usual way we think about things, it then feels powerful when you have access to it.

Only it’s not.

At least most of the time, extraction effects are “worse than countermagic” in the sense that you would really rather have had a counterspell in hand than be stuck with a useless extraction spell.

Measuring the effectiveness of extraction

Extraction effects are skill testers, but not of the “never play this card” variety. They are clear “circumstantially good” cards, cards that can be incredibly powerful in certain matchups while being effectively dead in most others.

Before we go into the theory behind when an extraction effect is good or not, consider the following pair of situations.

Memoricide versus Valakut

Here’s a recent Valakut list:

Valakut (as piloted by Arodin in a recent MTGO PTQ)

 

Imagine it’s your fourth turn and you’re casting Memoricide into this deck. Clearly, you name Primeval Titan, and just as clearly, your Memoricide resolves. What does this do to the deck?

In addition to the obvious impact of removing the possibility of the Valakut instant kill, in this case one resolved Memoricide more than halves the chance that your opponent will topdeck one of their game enders.

And, of course, the second resolved Memoricide essentially seals the deal, reducing the deck to trying to beat face with Cobras, Oracles, a single Raging Ravine, or the slow, manual version of the Valakut kill.

Similarly, a resolved Memoricide does pleasingly bad things to Wafo-Tapa’s U/B Control list from Barcelona:

U/B Control (as piloted by Guillaume Wafo-Tapa at GP Barcelona 2011)

Pre-board, this deck’s heavy hitters are Jace and Grave Titan, putting it in a situation very similar to the Valakut deck, above. One resolved Memoricide drastically reduces the deck’s access to meaningful finishers.

Memoricide versus Boros

Now, let’s change the situation. It’s your fourth turn and you’re facing Paulo’s Boros list from GP DFW:

Boros (as played by Paulo Vitor damo da Rosa at GP DFW 2011)

 

So what do you even name?

Maybe it’s Koth. Let’s name Koth.

If we consider each creature, equipment, and planeswalker in the deck a “threat,” then the situation looks like this:

Now, if Koth were for some reason the only card you cared about in Paulo’s deck, this might be a more dramatic impact. In most cases, however, you’ve simply changed his chance of topdecking some harm from 58% to 54%. That’s clearly far less dramatic than the “big threat” impact that we were able to have on Valakut.

You may be tempted to point to Koth as a “big threat,” but it’s not the same. Valakut nearly founders without its big threats, whereas the Boros deck (and by extension, Paulo) will likely shrug at the loss of Koth, cast a Stoneforge Mystic, and murder you because you just spent a whole turn and four mana modestly thinning their deck’s threat count.

That’s far less exciting than our outcome against Valakut, and it hopefully suggests part of the theoretical basis for the assertion that most of the time, Surgical Extraction does nothing.

The issues with extracting

These paired examples highlight what makes extraction effects fundamentally situational. We can underline these examples by discussing some of the issues that limit the effectiveness of extraction as a game effect.

A “do nothing” card

As we saw in the Boros example, extraction effects such as Memoricide often do little to nothing to fundamentally alter the game. In this way, they have a lot in common with a milling effect that does not explicitly win the game. Although this is counterintuitive to newer players, it’s important to remember one essential point:

In most cases, removing a card from your opponent’s deck does nothing.

How long does your typical game of Standard go? I don’t know the answer to that, but imagine, for simplicity’s sake, that you go to a chunky fifteen turns. That means you see twenty-two cards in your deck on the play. This also means that you don’t see thirty-eight cards. As emotionally unsettling as this might be, you could cut your deck in half and toss half of it in the trash and your game experience would be awfully similar to having your full deck available.

Unless the specific cards you extract have a dramatic impact on your opponent’s game, extracting them does nearly nothing.

Many of the cards in our starting list attempt to mitigate this negative trait of extraction effects by stapling the extraction to some effect that impacts the game state, be it countering a spell or destroying a creature. This changes the question of worth around a bit, since it removes the following concern.

Card disadvantage

In the Memoricide examples above, I assumed that the target cards were solely in the opponent’s deck. If, instead, you catch one or more in hand, congratulations – you’ve just cast what is likely to be an overpriced discard spell.

In the Valakut example, the likelihood that you’ll catch one or more big threat cards in their hand on your fourth turn is in the neighborhood of 66%, which isn’t horrible but on its own would not be worth investing a card and four mana. In comparison, you could spend one card and one mana to Duress or Inquisition, yielding a much higher chance of nabbing a card.

Of course, Valakut is one of those special cases where the potential to cripple the deck makes it worthwhile for us to gamble on not hitting a card in hand. But against Boros, there are much better things we should be doing with four mana and a card.

Is it worth it?

For any card, we can rephrase this question like so:

“Would another card be better?”

Eradicate was a Kamigawa-era card that stapled together Doom Blade and an extraction effect. Its competition for the black removal slot in Standard at the time included Putrefy and Mortify, which both had their own neat add-on effects. Was removing creature cards that you might never encounter in the game worth more than “being one mana cheaper” or the added ability to destroy an artifact or enchantment? Or, for that matter, being an Instant?

Heck, no.

In the modern context, it’s tempting to imagine using Memoricide in U/W/B Caw-Blade to remove your opponent’s Swords in the mirror match. In the super abstract, that makes Memoricide seem far better than Duress or Inquisition of Kozilek.

Except it costs four mana, which is one too many even on the play.

You’re far too likely to end up in the unenviable position of removing their remaining Sword while they beat you up with the one they managed to cast and equip. And honestly, even if you did hit both Swords, you’d still be stuck fighting against Jace, Gideon, some creature duals, and an endless swarm of obnoxious birds.

If a card is going to sometimes interact with your opponent’s hand and never interact with the board, then it must fundamentally alter their overall game plan in a manner that significantly skews the odds of winning in your favor – or almost any other card you can choose will be better.

Issues on issues – why Surgical Extraction is actually worse than this

Let’s loop all this theory back into our new hype card, Surgical Extraction. The discussion above maps pretty much directly onto our understanding of Memoricide and its use. However, Surgical Extraction brings with it one giant, thumping additional issue that makes it a marginal, conditional card the vast majority of the time.

The big flaw

When can you cast Surgical Extraction?

Right.

When they’ve already cast the spell.

Yes, you might have made them discard to give you access to the card. But now you’re just working inefficiently, turning a nothing-for-one into a sort of gimpy one-for-two.

Memoricide at least offers you the possibility of beating them to the punch and removing all access to the target card before you have to deal with it via some other means. If Memoricide is a bad plan in most cases, such as the Boros and Caw-Blade matchups, Surgical Extraction is nearly no plan at all. It boils down to, “After they shoot a couple of our guys, we’ll know what kind of gun they’re using and pick out the perfect body armor.”

Most of the time, Surgical Extraction is going to be a cheaper, faster Memoricide that sucks.

Why would you use this card?

Cards like Surgical Extraction live in the corner case of the corner case that is extraction cards being the right choice. They are suited for a game situation in which:

1) Someone else is doing the work of putting the target card in the graveyard

2) You need to deal with that card very, very quickly

In other words, your opponent is trying to abuse the graveyard, and they’re doing it in a way that either requires an instant to break the chain or occurs so explosively that you won’t have time to cast a four-mana sorcery to stop it.

Thus, when Dredge was legal in Ravnica – Time Spiral Standard, Extirpate was an okay sideboard choice (with bonus value thanks to Project X decks also abusing the graveyard). In contemporary Legacy, however, it’s hard to see why you would choose to run the pinpoint weapon that is Surgical Extraction when you could simply use Ravenous Trap instead, unless a slower graveyard deck than Dredge sees a resurgence and you can’t count on three cards hitting the bin.

Even then, there are lots of competitors, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Outside of these fairly specific requirements, Surgical Extraction is not likely to be a better choice than many other cards you might use in its place, Memoricide included.

For those who are into Wizards set Kremlinology, this could be taken to mean that one or more cards in New Phyrexia let you abuse the graveyard in a very powerful way. I suppose we’ll see.

Conditionally useful

This topic is old news for a lot of experienced players, but surprisingly opaque for those who are newer to the game – even players who have seen a lot of competitive success already. Hopefully, this overview was either useful to you, or can serve as a place for you to point to when a buddy insists that Surgical Extraction is ridiculously overpowered, and clearly the best card in New Phyrexia.

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