This past Sunday, I and an entire platoon of the Team Draft League/NYC magic community descended on Nebulous Gaming for a Limited PPTQ. It was a murderer’s row of raw spellslinging talent. My pool was mediocre, my play was good, and I’m proud of the 4-2 I managed. I squeaked by into 17th place, far better than the heartbreaking 9th place fellow Hipster Zac Clark got (someone dropped after the top 8 was announced and Zac didn’t get to take his spot, which was awful for Zac, but he’d opened a Wasteland Expedition, so at least he had a nice consolation prize). That’s not what I’m here to talk about, however. I’m here to talk a simple, unassuming magic card: Tar Snare.

Tar Snare

After the PPTQ, I stood outside the venue and chatted with fellow Hipster Derek and former columnist Hugh Kramer. Hugh was regretting not playing two copies of Tar Snare over the more expensive but unconditional Scour from Existence and surprisingly lackluster Turn Against. Tar Snare isn’t very good at killing creatures, but he’d have benefited from the cheap interaction to buy time for his bombs to come down and take over the game. I agreed that his deck would have better with the Tar Snares. I began talking about the design of the card and it got me thinking about all the other similar cards we’ve seen (spoilers: there’s a whole bunch).

Demon's Grasp

There are a lot of -X/-X cards in Magic. There’s Death Wind, which isn’t a particularly efficient removal spell but is still quite good. There’s Flatten, a generally excellent removal spell (in its context) and a strict upgrade to Throttle (which was still quite good; plus, the upgrade to Flatten told a delightfully subtle story about how the rise of the dragons made Tarkir more deadly/powerful).

Welding Jar


We can consider the efficiency of -X/-X spells much as we consider the efficiency of burn spells. Not only is Lightning Bolt one of the most powerful burn spells ever, it’s one of the most efficient: it provides 3 points of damage per mana. While Lightning Strike is more powerful than Volcanic Hammer by virtue of being instant speed, they are equally efficient: both provide 3 damage per 2 mana, or 1.5 damage per mana (half the efficiency of Lightning Bolt). Obviously, efficiency and being instant-speed isn’t everything (Boros Charm is much stronger than Shock, even though they’re equally efficient), but it’s a helpful way to look at removal spells and cards in general.


Flatten is more efficient than Throttle and Death Wind, as it provides -1/-1 for each mana you put in. Throttle has 80% that efficiency and Death Wind becomes more efficient the more mana you put into it. However, just as with Boros Charm, there’s something to be said for power, as well: Flatten has the same efficiency as Eye Gouge, but 4 is a much more substantial number than 1, unsurprisingly. Two spells can be equally efficient and at the same speed, but one can be substantially better than the other.

Where were we? Ah yes, Tar Snare.

Eye Gouge

Tar Snare doesn’t provide a square -X/-X, so it doesn’t neatly fit the efficiency formula. However, the second number, which reduces toughness and actually kills creatures, is more important than the former (which is useful when using Tar Snare as a combat trick or when it’s preventing three damage, which is it’s worst use). So, let’s for the moment think of Tar Snare as a -2/-2 spell with mild upside (which is what it is most of the time, anyway).

Tar Snare is somewhere between Disfigure and Fatal Fumes. Disfigure is a fantastic, top-tier removal spell which has seen Legacy play; Fatal Fumes is abysmal. That’s a wide berth, but in terms of efficiency, Tar Snare is closer to Fatal Fumes than it is DisfigureTar Snare is a strict downgrade of Last Gasp and it’s substantially weaker than Grasp of Darkness, which is (an uncommon) in the same set! However, all of the cards Tar Snare is clearly worse than are all excellent removal spells, which is an important data point.

Weight of the Underworld

I’d wager that Tar Snare is better than Weight of the Underworld, a serviceable but underwhelming removal spell. Both spells want to immediately kill a creature and both have decent alternate modes when the target has 3+ toughness; Tar Snare works as a combat trick but is weak to other combat tricks, while Weight of the Underworld neuters a creature but is weak to enchantment removal (and is less efficient and sorcery speed).

It’s also worth considering contextWeight of the Underworld was awful against Topan Freeblade and Gods Willing, two premier commons of its formats. Tar Snare looks awful in a durdley format full of 2/3s. However, there are a lot of powerful low toughness creatures in Oath of the Gatewhich, such as Stalking Drone, Ondu War Cleric, and Goblin Freerunner, all of which die to Tar Snare. Moreover, Oath-Oath-Battle is a format with relatively little instant speed interaction, making it a better combat trick (plus, it giving -3 power is relevant in a format where most combat tricks give +2/+2 or less). Tar Snare is perhaps better than its efficiency and power suggest, given its context.

Doom Blade

I like the current world in which we live. When Doom Blade and Lightning Bolt were common, combat tricks were lousy, top tier removal was ubiquitous, and pick orders were simpler (take the excellent common removal spell over almost anything else). Removal spells were too powerful, too efficient, and too common; they were so powerful that context didn’t matter.

In today’s world, we need to think about our removal. We were spoiled by the removal spells of yesterday and can easily overlook the utility of humble cards like Tar Snare. We’ll still have top tier removal, but it’ll be uncommon (like Grasp of Darkness and Ultimate Price) or be less powerful than its forebears, like Oblivion Strike (an excellent spell which is nevertheless worse than Doom Blade) or Lightning Strike.

All said, I encourage you to reexamine how you consider removal spells. Do you leave Tar Snare in the sideboard, because it doesn’t kill much? Perhaps you should move a copy or two to the main deck and see what it can do for you. Conversely, if you automatically take and put in your main deck anything capable of killing a creature, perhaps you should consider cutting Tar Snare (or Scour from Existence) when you already have seven better removal spells. I’ve seen both styles, and in today’s Magic, you can’t afford not to critically examine all of your spells, even your kill spells.

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash has been playing Magic on and off since 1994. He loves Limited and drafts every available format (including several that aren’t entirely meant to be drafted). He’s a proud Cube owner, improviser, and game designer (currently going for an MFA in Game Design at NYU). He has an obsession with Indian food that borders on being unhealthy.

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