These last two weeks have been filled with Magic 2015. I've covered the Pro Tour and Grand Prix Portland in back-to-back weeks, and it's been a wild ride. Through this ride, I have learned much about how the best Magic players in the world view the format, and have refined some of my views as well.
At the Grand Prix (which was Team Limited), one situation came up over and over again: one player was so far ahead that only a few cards in the set could get him or her out of it. Hornet Queen came up frequently as the best stabilizer bomb in the format, but even she isn't enough sometimes. No, sometimes it comes down to sweepers: spells that kill all or most of the creatures in play.
Since it's Annihilation Week, I figured it would be a great time to brush up on sweepers in Limited and also a good spot to look at the sweepers in M15, and how they work.
One of the first pieces of Magic slang new players pick up is the term "wrath." This is shorthand for a sweeper of some sort, a card that kills most or all of the creatures on the battlefield. The original wrath was, well, Wrath of God, from all the way back in Alpha. That trope has continued throughout most of Magic's history and even lives on to this day.
Like all cards in Limited, when we evaluate a wrath effect, we have to weigh the upside as well as the downside of putting the card in our deck. We have to avoid falling into the trap of BCSM (Best Case Scenario Mentality) while also recognizing the benefit of the card. It's tricky business figuring out how good wrath effects are, as they tend to be incredibly powerful in some situations and quite poor in others.
Let's start with the downside. The biggest issue with wrath effects in Limited is that essentially all Limited decks are creature based. If you look at a control deck in Standard, for example, you'll see that it plays nearly zero creatures. This is so it can most effectively leverage the power of its sweepers. If it casts a sweeper while its opponent has three creatures, and the control deck has none, it is way ahead on card advantage.
In Limited, we are all playing creature decks. A wrath effect isn't quite as strong as it is in Constructed because we are more likely to kill some of our own creatures when we cast it, losing out on some value.
There is also a tempo issue at play. If you are the one casting the wrath effect, it's usually taking up all of your mana for the turn. This means that your opponent gets to be the first one to start rebuilding the board. Your opponent untaps, plays a five-drop, and now you are on the defensive again, as your opponent can attack, use removal, or cast combat tricks on the following turn. This is a deceptively big disadvantage in a game of Limited.
Timing can also be an issue. We will see in the next section that it's also a benefit, but what if you evaluate your opening hand and it has a nice curve-out with some solid creatures (but no wrath effect)? You'd normally keep this hand, play out your creatures, and try to kill your opponent. On turn five, you draw your wrath effect.
Now you aren't able to play it from your hand since you are ahead on board. Add to that the fact that it doesn't help you accomplish the goal of actually winning the game (it's not a great attacker, it turns out) and you have some tangible downside on your hands.
Overall, there is significant downside to wrath effects in Limited. The question you should be asking yourself right now is if there is enough upside to justify playing them.
As it turns out, there is!
The biggest upside is straightforward: the huge potential for card advantage!
Imagine a scenario where your opponent is on the play. Your opponent plays a two-drop, three-drop, and four-drop in succession. Your opponent is living the Limited curve-out dream. With your fourth land and a wry smile, you can turn that Magical Christmasland into a total nightmare.
Recovering from a three-for-one of this caliber is incredibly difficult. So we know the raw power is there, but what else do wrath effects offer?
A Reset Button. A Reset Button works like this: you are playing out a normal game, adding creatures to the board and trying to kill your opponent with them. But then your opponent plays a big six-mana bomb that trumps everything you have. It's time to start everything over by playing your wrath effect, and then figure out where to go from there.
As you can see, the timing on this is important. One turn too late, you are dead. One turn too early, your opponent could just follow up with that big bomb. It's quite tricky to figure out when to fire off the wrath effect. The key, though, is that you are the one who gets to decide when to do it. There is a lot of power in the timing of that decision.
Another upside is that wrath effects are relatively seldom seen in Limited, making them more difficult to play around. It's not uncommon to see an opponent gleefully overcommit creatures to the battlefield in Game 1.
Overall, wrath effects are very powerful spells that justify their slot in your deck. They have a unique ability that can outright win games on their own, and that justifies the times when they aren't as great for you.
One key consideration when evaluating a wrath effect is (as always) casting cost. But casting cost is particularly important with this type of card. Your standard Wrath of God variant will cost four mana. These are the best versions of this type of card, and usually the cheapest they get. At four mana, you can let your opponent play three creatures and still get him or her good while maintaining enough of your life total to be in a good position to win. Remember: if you start the game with a four-mana wrath effect in your hand, you shouldn't play your creatures until after you resolve the wrath effect.
The more expensive these cards get, the worse they get, and quickly. The reason for this is easy to see once you play with them. If your wrath effect costs four mana, you don't even have to play a single creature to protect your life total. You can just let your opponent play right into it and then sweep away those creatures. If your wrath effect costs six or seven mana, your opponent could simply kill you before you have the time to cast it.
This facilitates playing creatures from your hand to act as blockers and protect your life total until you get enough mana to cast your sweeper. You can see the issue here: after you finally cast the sweeper, you are killing some of your creatures as well as your opponent's, lowering the value you get on your card. Or, even worse, your opponent just kills you before you get to the number of mana you need.
Overall, sweepers are well worth it, but consider the timing and cost of the sweeper carefully before playing it.
Let's look at the sweepers in Magic 2015 before we say goodbye for the week.
Using the tools we described above, we can see that Mass Calcify has one big issue: it costs a whopping seven mana. Generally, sweepers like this are fringe-playable, as the aggressive decks will easily kill you before you get to the requisite mana. But with this card in particular, there is a catch.
It doesn't kill white creatures.
This changes everything. If you find yourself with a deck sporting primarily white creatures and an opponent sporting zero white creatures, you are looking at a certified, seven-mana bomb. Once wrath effects turn the corner from "destroy all" to "destroy your" the evaluation changes dramatically.
Mass Calcify in a predominately white deck can be a game-breaker. In M15 specifically, white is a more proactive color, capable of quick kills thanks to its token makers and Sanctified Charge. So you won't see it quite as often. But if the white deck faces a green-black slowdown deck or something similar, you can be sure it comes in out of the sideboard.
Speaking of one-sided sweepers, here's one now! I could go on and on about how insanely powerful one-sided wrath effects are, but none of it really matters. In Garruk's Wake costs nine mana.
That's just too slow for even the slowest deck. The gap between seven and nine mana is something like five or six turns.
It would take an extraordinary deck or circumstance to really feel good about playing an In Garruk's Wake in your main deck.
I had to.
Yes, I know it doesn't fit the traditional role of a sweeper, but darn it, every time I play this card it feels like a one-sided wrath.
I just had to get that off my chest.
When it comes to maximum annihilation in Limited, wrath effects are your best bet. They can blow up the most things for the least cost. With the help of the tools we discussed above, you will know when to push that button and when not to.
Until next week!