Much of Magic is about lining up threats and answers. The aggressive player who presents threats their opponent cannot deal with is going to perform well. The reactive player who comes prepared with all the right answers is going to do the same. How can you become the player who always has the right answer cards? Between the complexity of Magic’s gameplay and its deep card pool, this is a difficult question. In this Deep Dive, I’ll lay out my best advice for choosing effective answer cards during deckbuilding and sideboarding.
Answering a threat can occur in many ways. Much will depend on your particular strategy, and what colors you have access to.
Some decks will be best served by permission spells, some by spot removal and some by board sweepers. Others still will defend themselves by blocking. Sometimes, answering a threat isn’t the right approach at all and you may instead seek to race or overpower it. In most cases, having access to a mix of these techniques will serve you best.
The most direct way to answer a threat – and the one that most players think of first – is to kill it with a removal spell. Lightning Bolt your Goblin Guide or Doom Blade your Baneslayer Angel. Spot removal is simple and effective.
One great thing about spot removal is that it tends to be efficient. In the example of Doom Blade on Baneslayer Angel, you’ve made a profitable mana exchange by using a two-mana spell to kill a five-mana creature. You can also make this play at instant speed, making it as convenient as possible for you and as inconvenient as possible for the creature’s controller.
Another great thing about spot removal is that it’s not time sensitive. You can cast Doom Blade immediately when Baneslayer hits the battlefield. If they’re leaving it on defense, you can wait for a turn where you’re planning a big attack. If you don’t have the Doom Blade ready, you can even take 10 damage from the Baneslayer Angel before drawing Doom Blade and mounting your comeback.
A third great thing about spot removal is that it’s flexible; you get to trade on your own terms.
Imagine yourself deep into a game of Strixhaven Limited. Both players have a board of creatures, and you’re holding Mage Hunters’ Onslaught. Your opponent casts Leech Fanatic and passes the turn. You can kill that Leech Fanatic if you deem it to be an important threat. But if you don’t – for example, if you have blockers that stop it from attacking – then you can be judicious with your removal spell. You decide not to cast it, then on your opponent’s next turn, they cast Embrose, Dean of Shadow. This is a much more serious threat, and having Mage Hunters’ Onslaught to kill it helps you stay in the game.
You, as the player with the removal spell, have more agency over how things line up, and the player presenting threats has less. You can always answer the Leech Fanatic if you choose to, but the opponent cannot make Leech Fanatic trade with your removal spell unless you want the trade to happen.
The example of this Limited game also illustrates why having multiple types of answer cards can be helpful. Your blocking creatures answered the Leech Fanatic in an incidental way, allowing you to line up your removal spell for the best possible job. Without the blockers, you’d probably be forced to kill each of the opponent’s creatures individually.