I typically shy away from discussing individual cards in Level One. However, certain categories of cards are so important, so powerful, and so recognizable, that even a fundamental strategy guide would be incomplete without mentioning them. Today, we're going to cover board sweepers. At the end, I'll preview a powerful and exciting new card from Magic Origins!
Board sweepers are cards capable of destroying many creatures at once. They're also called wraths—named after their oldest and most iconic ancestor.
Wrath of God is quite simple (in its wording, if not in its effect on the game), but board sweepers can take many different forms. Many, like Wrath of God, are symmetric. Some, like In Garruk's Wake, are not. Some, like Seismic Rupture, are conditional. Some, like Perilous Vault, destroy more than just creatures. Whether you're playing with them or against them, it's important to understand all of these subtle differences between board sweepers.
Board Sweepers are Format Defining
Format defining is a weighty term. For a card to be format defining means more than just being powerful. It means more than being commonly played in multiple different decks. It means that most, or all decks in the format are warped around its existence. Board sweepers have great potential to be format defining.
One of the first things you need to learn about a new format is what board sweepers are out there. This will impact both the way you build your deck and the way you play. Some Limited formats have few or no board sweepers. Great! You can just play a normal game, focusing on developing your side of the battlefield. Other times, you'll need to be more careful.
Dragons of Tarkir, for example, has Seismic Rupture at uncommon, which means that you won't play against it every game, or even every Draft, but that you shouldn't be surprised by it either. It's a conditional sweeper, so you can make some small adjustments to reduce your vulnerability to it. Green-red decks can make great use of Seismic Rupture if most of their creatures have a toughness of 3 or more. Blue-red decks can make great use of it if they have few creatures, or if most of them have flying. Other red decks can simply sideboard Seismic Rupture against opponents who are particularly vulnerable. If your Draft deck is utterly devastated by Seismic Rupture, this is a weakness that you should be aware of.
Fate Reforged has Crux of Fate at rare. Technically, Crux of Fate is also conditional, but in many cases it's going to destroy all of the creatures on the battlefield anyway—it's hard to adjust your deck to be resilient against Crux of Fate. However, since it's a rare, you probably shouldn't worry about Crux of Fate in Limited until you see for certain that your opponent has it.
In Constructed, being aware of the board sweepers is even more important, since anyone who wants to play with them will be able to do so. In current Standard, you should be aware that most control decks play with one copy of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and one to three copies of either End Hostilities or Crux of Fate. You should be aware that Drown in Sorrow is a common sideboard card. You should be aware when you cast multiple copies of the same creature that you're making yourself vulnerable to Bile Blight.
When you build your deck, if the prevalent board sweepers pose a threat to you, you ought to brainstorm solutions to your problem. For example, some mono-red decks turn to dash creatures in order to beat Drown in Sorrow. Nearly all Green Devotion decks feature Whisperwood Elemental as insurance against End Hostilities.
When you play the games, you should weigh the risks and rewards of casting more creatures onto the battlefield and into a possible board sweeper.
When to put Board Sweepers in Your Deck
Board sweepers are powerful in both Constructed and Limited. In Limited, though—where power levels are lower, and where all decks play with a healthy number of creatures—board sweepers are typically bombs. You should always play with a card like Crux of Fate, no matter how many creatures you're playing or how aggressive your deck is. The fact that you get to be the one in control of such a game-breaking effect gives you a big advantage almost any way you look at things. If it looks like you're going to cast Crux of Fate, you can save a few creatures in your hand. If you're going to win the game without it, you can choose not to cast it at all!
Lower-power board sweepers like Seismic Rupture, are slightly more in question. They can be strong main-deck cards if they fit your deck well and/or if the format is right for them. (The faster the format and the more weenie creatures, the better Seismic Rupture will be). They will virtually always be excellent sideboard cards.
In Constructed, board sweepers are at their best in control decks. Control decks value card advantage, and they want the games to go long. Board sweepers fit with both of those goals. Perhaps most importantly, control decks typically play few creatures of their own, so an effect that reads as being symmetric is hardly symmetric at all!
Sometimes, circumstances are right for creatures decks to play with board sweepers also. However, the costs of doing so are much higher than for control decks.
Board sweepers ask you to center your game plan around them. They're not particularly helpful when you're trying to play a normal game and fight a fair fight. Consider this example:
You're on the play in an Abzan mirror. On turn four, there are no creatures on the battlefield and your hand contains Siege Rhino and Crux of Fate. What should you do? If you do nothing, then you're not using Siege Rhino to its full potential. But if you cast a creature, you might not use Crux of Fate to its full potential.
Let's say you cast Siege Rhino (as you probably should). Now your opponent plays his or her own Siege Rhino. Now what? Casting Crux of Fate would have a completely symmetric effect, and wouldn't accomplish much, so let's suppose instead that you do nothing. Now your opponent casts Anafenza, the Foremost. Now you can trade two-for-two (Crux of Fate and Siege Rhino for Siege Rhino and Anafenza). That's a fine trade, but it's unexciting and your removal spell has been overpriced and awkward. You could hold out and hope that your opponent casts a third creature, but what if he or she doesn't? What if instead he or she kills your Siege Rhino and attacks for more damage than you were counting on?
I find scenarios like this to be very common. Crux of Fate isn't a bad card in an Abzan mirror—you can almost always find a use for it. However, it's also somewhat unreliable. Return to the beginning of this game and replace Crux of Fate with Hero's Downfall…and your life becomes much easier. You cast your Rhino, Downfall your opponent's Rhino and start beating down!
In short, spot removal spells tend to fit better with the plan of creature decks than board sweepers do. However, if there's a matchup (think Green Devotion) or a particular card (think Wingmate Roc) for which you really need a board sweeper, then the option does exist.
Main deck or Sideboard?
Board sweepers are easier to put in your sideboard than your main deck. They're great in certain matchups (creature decks) but very poor in other matchups (control decks).
Ironically, though, board sweepers are much more powerful as main deck cards than as sideboard cards. An astounding number of Game 1s come down to: "Player A will win if they have a board sweeper. Player B will win if he or she does not."
This is true for two reasons. First, the creature deck often does not have the tools necessary to "play around" the board sweeper before sideboarding. If a deck is designed to put creatures into play and attack, then it's likely to be excellent at executing that game plan, but not at much else.
Second, the control (or midrange) deck often does not have enough spot removal to reliably beat the creature deck before sideboarding. In order to dismantle Green Devotion or Mono-Red in Game 1, a deck would have to play so many removal spells that there wouldn't much room left for anything else. They'd have far too many dead cards against decks that don't win via creatures!
For these reasons, Game 1s often come down to the "do you have the board sweeper or not?" situation, and board sweepers are at their most powerful. After sideboarding, the dynamic changes. Creature decks know that they must be prepared to beat board sweepers after sideboarding, so they adjust their game plans. They diversify their threats using Planeswalkers, dash creatures, or any other tools they have access to. Sometimes, they might bring in direct answers to the board sweepers such as cards like Thoughtseize or Negate.
The control/midrange deck will be sideboarding in all of the removal spells and defensive measures that they have access to. Now the plan becomes to kill every creature on sight, as quickly as possible. There's no opportunity for the creature deck to build up a huge army. The board sweepers might still be effective, but they're no longer the primary game plan.
For this reason, if you've decided to put unconditional board sweepers (End Hostilities, Crux of Fate, etc.) in your deck, they'll be at their most potent in the main deck. Conditional board sweepers like Drown in Sorrow are still very good as sideboard cards, since they're so effective in the particular matchups in which you want them.
Today's preview card is a new board sweeper from Magic Origins! Languish straddles the line between a conditional and unconditional board sweeper. At four mana, it's relevantly cheaper than End Hostilities and Crux of Fate. These two characteristics combine to make Languish an incredibly exciting card for the new Standard. It might prove to be format defining!
Languish will wipe up all small creatures (even through regeneration and indestructible), but will leave creatures with 5 or more toughness alive. This makes it very convenient for black creature decks, since Siege Rhino; Tasigur, the Golden Fang; Dragonlord Silumgar; and Silumgar, the Drifting Death will all live through it. You can easily design your own deck to be resilient to Languish, taking maximum advantage of the symmetric effect.
At four mana, Languish is fast enough to save you from red weenie decks and Goblin Rabblemaster. However, its effect is large enough that it will remain powerful into the late game, answering Thunderbreak Regents and Dragonlord Ojutais.
I don't know that Languish will replace Drown in Sorrow and Crux of Fate, but it will certainly have a place beside them. With so many board sweepers all available, you can choose the one that best suits your needs. Building your deck to be as resilient as possible against the variety of board sweepers available in Standard will be a challenge. However, there will be great rewards for those who can do so properly!