Playing removal spells in Commander is trickier than it seems. You can't rely on spot removal to solve your problems in a multiplayer format-multiple opponents playing multiple threats will quickly overwhelm your resources. But playing lots of mass removal has its own issues. If you keep sweeping the board, games tend to stall out. This is boring, which is the antithesis of what Commander is supposed to be about. Leaning too heavily on mass removal effects can also mean punishing the entire table when you really just want to get rid the one permanent that's about to kill you. This can force everyone to band together and take you out so they can return to playing their cards and enjoying the game.
Instead of having removal spells be the focus of your deck, I like making them a supporting theme. You want to play enough removal spells to have one or two when needed, but you don't want them to be the only action in your hand.
This is why spot removal plays a vital role: you need to have it for something that really matters. Spot removal is usually cheap, so you can use it when someone powers out their Commander earlier than everybody else. A turn two Skullbriar is a scary thing to face down if you only have a fistful of wraths, but a surgical Swords to Plowshares can make you the hero of the table-at least temporarily.
In a format where just about every card is legal, however, searching through Gatherer for "destroy target [something]" can be overwhelming. I thought it might be helpful if I shared the best removal spells to play in Commander. My hope is to stir up a conversation about what removal spells people play and why.
Targeted Creature Removal
White is the gold standard when it comes to efficiently removing individual creatures. Swords to Plowshares has been wiping out problematic creatures since the game's inception, and Path to Exile is nearly as good. Killing a creature at instant speed for one mana is fantastic, but what puts these two spells over the top is their exile effect. Graveyards are just not a place where creatures are actually gone these days-they're a resource that most decks have some way to utilize. If you need to ensure that a non-Commander card is gone for good, you have to find a way to exile it.
Declaration in Stone is a slower, friendlier iteration of these white spells, but it has the benefit of being able to mop up a token horde with no drawback. This is definitely a great option to have against some popular strategies.
Reprisal is a card I often forget about, but I try to remind myself about its existence when brewing up lists. The price is right at just two mana, and you can cast it at instant speed. The condition of only being able to target a creature with four or more power is not much of a drawback in Commander, since most creature threats you'll want to spend a removal spell on will meet that requirement. You can even mitigate that marginal downside if you've got some reusable way to boost the power of an opponent's creature.
You have to dig a little deeper to find good ways to remove individual creatures in green and red. During most of Magic's history, green wasn't able to deal with creatures-something that didn't really change until Wizards created the fight mechanic. Ulvenwald Tracker's cheap cost and reusability make it a great addition to green decks, especially if your Commander is sizeable. Setessan Tactics is at its best when you have a lot of mana, but that's not usually a problem for green decks. Its flexibility as either a mass fight enabler or just as a surprise pump across multiple attackers make it a nice addition to green's arsenal.
Berserk is an oldie and a goodie that I've stuffed into many of multiplayer decks since I cracked it in an Unlimited booster pack many moons ago. The card is great at turning pump spells into a lethal attack, especially if your creature has Infect, but it's even better in multiplayer since you can target a creature an opponent controls that's attacking someone else. Not only can Berserk make the defending player take a lot more damage than they were expecting, but it destroys the attacking threat after combat. A win/win for you!
Red is even trickier since its strength is dealing damage in small and efficient chunks. In a world where everyone starts off with forty life and creatures tend to be large, red's spells can be outclassed pretty quickly.
That said, I think Lightning Bolt can absolutely have a place in a Commander deck. Lightning Bolt can finish off a player who has managed to stabilize at just a few points of life, and it can prove to be a potent political bargaining chip in similar situations. It can also help finish off a problematic Planeswalker when the player has a board that is difficult to attack into. Most often, though, Lightning Bolt shines when a threat on the board blocks or is blocked by a creature that is not quite big enough to kill it…not without three extra points of damage, at least. If this sort of interaction appeals to you, you might also want to consider Carbonize, a burn spell that shuts down regeneration and exiles the creature if it dies.
Lastly, I wanted to give a shout-out to Impact Resonance. There are times where the card will rot in your hand as you wait for a good time to cast it, but Commander is a game about haymakers and spectacular plays. A huge amount of damage will get dealt eventually, that's when Impact Resonance shines. You can often pick off several problematic creatures with just one spell and two red mana.
White is the gold standard for efficiency and exile effects, but black provides countless spells that kill creatures as well. It's easy to trigger morbid in a Commander game, so the bonuses on Tragic Slip and Malicious Affliction are worth waiting for. Tragic Slip is a card I find room for in most of my black Commander decks-the price and speed can't be beat, and there aren't many other cards that can deal with a large indestructible or regenerating threat for just one mana.
Big Game Hunter is like a black Reprisal, only you get a 1/1 creature attached to the effect for one extra mana. You might even get to take advantage of the madness once in a while. The advantages of Big Game Hunter don't stop there, though, since creatures with comes-into-play abilities are easy to reuse through graveyard recursion, self-bounce, and blinking effects. If we ever get a black and white Commander to tie to Rebel tribe together, Big Game Hunter will be one of the go-to search targets.
Silence the Believers is a little costly, but the exile effect, condition-free targeting, and strive ability makes it worthy of consideration for any black deck. And since black is no slouch in the mana-generating department, you won't have any issues casting this spell most of the time.
(Ob)Noxious Gearhulk pops up here and there in Standard, but it should see a lot more play in Commander than it does right now. Killing anything, gaining you life, and then leaving behind a substantial threat is exactly what we want to be doing in this format.
Like green, blue has traditionally had a problem dealing with creatures once they hit the battlefield. Thankfully, Wizards found a flavorful loophole by giving blue the slice of the color pie that deals with polymorphing. Pongify and Rapid Hybridization are as cheap as can be, and the fact that you can cast them at instant speed makes them great at dealing with the exact sort of threats that require spot removal in the first place. The drawback on these two spells isn't trivial, but as long as you're downgrading something more threatening than a 3/3 token, it'll be a net positive.
Curse of the Swine is slower and more mana intensive than Pongify or Rapid Hybridization, but its exile effect is excellent. 2/2 creatures are a lot easier to deal with, too, and Curse of the Swine scales nicely as the game progresses.
Most of these spells get the nod due to their ability to unconditionally kill anything. I haven't played with Ajani Unyielding all that much yet, but I suspect it'll prove to be quite good in Commander.
I thought it would be good to focus on dealing with Commanders specifically here. Even though most commanders can be targeted by the same removal spells as every other creature in your opponent's deck, the rules of the format mean that they'll probably be back sooner or later. For threatening Commanders that don't cost much mana to cast, this can be particularly frustrating to deal with it. In order to combat this, we can make use of cards that neutralize the Commander without killing it.
I think that Prison Term is one of the best Pacifism variants out there, since you can move it to a bigger threat at any point. The Vow cycle is a nice spin on that, only keeping the enchanted creature from attacking you while giving it a boost when attacking your opponents.
Sometimes, though, a Commander can be threatening just by existing on the board, whether or not it's attacking or blocking. One of my favorite answers to these situations is Darksteel Mutation. It's cheap to cast, and the Commander can't wiggle out of its mutation by dying to a wrath and slipping back into the Command Zone. Song of the Dryads and Imprisoned by the Moon are similarly good at neutralizing Commanders, and the fact that they can deal with problematic non-land permanents give them additional versatility as well.
Lastly, there are the "named card" removal spells like Declaration of Naught and Voidstone Gargoyle. In most formats, these spells are tricky to use since you might name a card that is not even in your opponent's hand. In Commander, however, you always know at least one card in each opponent's deck. Exclusion Ritual is a bit pricey at six mana, but it will both exile a problematic Commander and prevent it from being replayed until someone removes your card. If my deck has even a whiff of enchantment synergy, Exclusion Ritual is an auto-include.
Since a Commander game might involve facing down almost any card from throughout the game's history, flexibility is an important quality to consider when choosing a removal spell.
These cards represent the very best in flexible pinpoint removal spells-not just for creatures, but for non-creature permanents as well. Green is the best color for this, and Beast Within, Bramblecrush, and Rootgrapple are particularly nice thanks to their ability to destroy opposing Planeswalkers.
Removing Enchantments and Artifacts
Having pinpoint removal for artifacts and enchantments is just as important as it is for creatures. Relying exclusively on board sweepers is a mistake. Artifacts and enchantments are a big part of most Commander decks, and you'd hate to cast something like Bane of Progress to get rid of Paradox Engine. By sweeping away everyone's signets and innocuous enchantments, you've turned a heroic combo-breaking moment into a situation where feel-bads are scattered all around the table.
Make sure you include ways to deal with indestructible artifacts and enchantments, too. Deglamer, Revoke Existence, and Return to Dust are good calls. If you're playing green, Krosan Grip is worth the extra mana cost since split second can be the only way to stop certain kinds of shenanigans. Sometimes, taking out a Sensei's Divining Top just feels good.
I hope that I've given you some ideas for working a good mix of removal spells into your Commander decks. What's your philosophy on removal? What are your favorite targeted removal spells that I didn't include? Let me know!
New to Commander?
If you're just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:
- Commander Primer Part 1 (Why play Commander? Rules Overview, Picking your Commander)
- Commander Primer Part 2 (Mana Requirements, Randomness, Card Advantage)
- Commander Primer Part 3 (Power vs. Synergy, Griefing, Staples, Building a Doran Deck)
- Commander Starter Kits 1 (kick start your allied two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 2 (kick start your enemy two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 3 (kick start your shard three-color decks for $25)
Commander write-ups I've done (and links to decklists):