One of the most important things you can do when you break down a Limited format is observe the quantity and quality of tricks and removal. Hour of Devastation gets a little more complicated than that because you also have all the removal and tricks from Amonkhet as well. Studying these spells lets you figure out what to play around from your opponents, but it also lets you get a better picture of what’s possible. For a clear example, look at the following two removal spell variants:
If Forced Worship is present in a set, it makes it more defensive. The card leads to naturally longer games, and even lets you upgrade the target to the biggest foe. Cast into Darkness does exactly the opposite. A creature can’t block and suddenly the game is more about racing. The power shrink encourages the race even further because the player who casts the Aura is more likely to win the race, and initiate it in the first place.
This is a pretty polarizing extreme, but it paints a clear picture of why specificity matters. The statement, “there’s good removal and pump spells in the set” doesn’t actually say very much. If the removal is all expensive but wipes out multiple creatures that might be “good,” or if the removal is extremely efficient like Magma Spray, it can also be good. But the distinction here is what they punish. In the former example you want to go under the removal spells. They’re bad versus combat tricks because they’re so expensive and if you have cheap but bad creatures then your opponent won’t have good targets for their removal. Against Magma Spray, creatures with 3 or more toughness are king. It would have still been good in AKH with fewer X/2s, but it was especially impressive within the context of the format. When it was in Shards of Alara, the card was good, but wasn’t the clear best common because that set was about 3-color creatures that were large for their cost.
Without further ado, let’s look at the tricks and removal of HOU, and then I’ll talk briefly about how that impacts the format in contrast to triple-AKH. Rather than sort by color I’ll sort by cost to paint a clearer picture of what’s available at each point in the game.
Unsummon is an awesome addition to the format. It allows fast decks to get further ahead, but also allows slower decks like U/G and U/B the opportunity to catch up. This means it’s going to be fought over by blue drafters, but is also the type of card the gets worse in multiples because it becomes heavy card disadvantage when you lean on it too hard. The first copy is very valuable in almost any blue deck, though you do want a decent number of creatures to press an advantage, or card draw in slower decks to help offset the cost.
Other than that, the 3 Mardu Defeats are very important to remember in post-board games. If you’re playing a red mirror post-board and have the option of playing roughly equivalent red or green creatures, you’ll want to lean green simply because they’ll be less likely to get gunned down. There’s not a truly great way to play around the Defeats because they’re so cheap, which is why they’re such excellent sideboard cards in the first place.
There aren’t any combat tricks at 1 mana, unlike AKH, and only Act of Heroism, Gift of Strength, and Without Weakness at 2 mana. This marks a pretty clear shift from AKH where combat tricks were more efficient and plentiful. You can have too many 2-mana combat tricks, since they’ll simply clog up your hand, and these two aren’t so good that you need to prioritize them. It’s easy to get them when you want them, but you also have the possibility of getting better tricks from pack 3 if you need them. Of these I think Without Weakness is quite bad because it doesn’t actually affect your creatures’ stats, but is still 2 mana (as opposed to Djeru’s Resolve, which was a similar but better card).
Saving Grace functions as a combat trick too, although a much more unique one that also has plenty of other uses. The card is often a blowout and extremely important to remember as a card your opponent can have. It punishes early blocking when creatures would otherwise trade, but is also very good late unless you have a removal spell to break it up, so you’ll just have to bite the bullet and make your opponent have it.
Jace’s Defeat isn’t particularly good in tap out decks or in U/R Spells decks because it won’t trigger prowess when you want it. In addition, it can be played around if your opponent sniffs it out because they can just play another color card when you have mana up. This is a good one to know about in post-board blue mirrors, but is also a much lower priority when drafting than the Mardu Defeats.
Abrade and Blur of Blades are the first instances of damage-based removal, though they function very differently. Abrade is high quality, while Blur ranges from bad to slightly good in the matchup. You also have to care about the damage it deals for it to be at all playable.
Blue gets a huge upgrade with Unquenchable Thirst. Illusory Wrappings always disappointed, but now blue has an actual Doom Blade, though admittedly at sorcery speed and with the downside of Auras. Neutralizing embalm and eternalize creatures is a big upside, though. You can sometimes tell if your opponent has many of these if you see a lot of Deserts. There aren’t many other reasons for the Deserts in blue outside of this card, which can let you play differently. You can still windmill slam creatures like Archfiend of Ifnir into this because you don’t really care if they attack or block.
The only hard removal here is Desert’s Hold and Lethal Sting. Everything else is damage-based or can be played around. This indicates that big creatures gain quite a lot with this set and a slower environment overall. That said, Open Fire and Ambuscade are still massive beatings even if they can’t always kill everything. Ambuscade defines green’s interaction in a big way but it can be countered by removal. I’ve already Ambuscaded in response to my opponent’s, and that’s a game-winning play all on its own.
Banewhip Punisher is one of the few ways to kill the wide variety of X/1s in the set, but is a 4-mana removal spell at worst. It’s not exactly the type of card you can play around either, other than leading with 2+ toughness creatures when possible. Usually you can’t do this though because you’re almost always going to lead with X/1s like Oketra’s Avenger or Initiate’s Companion. You’ll lose more percentage if you live in fear of the Banewhip, unless you’ve already seen it earlier in the match and can afford to wait.
You also see the first wrath here. Wraths aren’t usually worth playing around in Limited, but there are so many in this set that it’s worth thinking about, especially when your opponent is in a Mardu combination.
3 is the magic number here again. Sand Strangler and Torment of Venom can’t stop truly great things, though Torment does at least help team up versus big problems or shrink otherwise unstoppable evasive threats. Puncturing Blow is almost hard removal but still doesn’t stop a few of the format’s threats like Rampaging Hippo. The Hippo is such a good finisher because its 6 toughness dodges almost all the removal in the format.
Here you see wrath number 2 and the Deadlands, which I classified as 5 mana since that’s what it costs to use. It’s obviously more than that because it’s also a land up until the point you use it. Spell lands give you such flexibility and this is no different. If possible, try and wait to show the Deadlands until you plan to use it so your opponent can’t wait to deploy good utility creatures like Fan Bearer until you’ve used it. Sometimes you’ll just have multiple Deserts though, and then good luck to your opponent.
Wrath number 3! Whaaaat?!? And in a small set too! All the things are certainly dying here and the wraths are even rare. This means you’ll encounter them far more frequently than in a normal set. Any time your opponent is a non-U/G color combination (and sometimes even U/G too because of splashes) you should be thinking about an incoming wrath. But there are spots where you’ll lose because you didn’t play your creatures for fear of a wrath. Ultimately, this is a classic tightrope walk. I tend to err on the side of running into the wrath because you’ll win with your board more often than your opponent actually has it, but if you are already winning and can beat a wrath by rebuilding your board, consider doing so. This is the perfect set to help build up this skill.
Let me know if this breakdown of tricks and removal was helpful. I know that for myself, it’s a useful lens to help understand each Limited environment, and allows me to make more informed decisions.
• Pump spells are less plentiful now, and worse. They existed at many mana costs before, but only cost 2 now. This makes 1-mana tricks and big blowout spells like Synchronized Strike even better than they were before because they’re much rarer.
• Most removal is damage based now, and most often deals 3 damage. This means big flyers with 4 or more toughness are much better than they were before. Blue gets the hard removal spell in Unquenchable Thirst, which means big creatures with abilities such as Ominous Sphinx will almost always live to do something. Puncturing Blow is the exception, and even that can’t kill truly big things like Rampaging Hippo.
• There are a lot of spells that you can’t effectively play around like the red and black defeats or Banewhip Punisher because these spells are so efficient that they’ll always be good (when they have targets, of course).
• There are a lot of wraths in the format. You should still play enough to the board so that you win when your opponent doesn’t have a wrath, but also identify spots where you can hold back your creatures when you’re far enough ahead.