A Sweep Is as Lucky as Lucky Can Be - The Wrath of God Story
- Gianluca Aicardi
The battlefield in a game of Magic often gets cluttered. And when that happens, what it needs is a good sweep. Fortunately, there have been cards providing help with this operation since the beginning of time, from those who called forth divine anger to those who made a star explode in the vicinity.
The current Standard pool contains a lot of powerful ways to sweep the board, but pure "wrath" effects are only those who explicitly state "destroy all creatures" (or, less frequently, "exile all creatures"). They don't allow exceptions, they don't look at the power of the creatures involved, unlike Ritual of Soot, and they don't care what the creatures are doing, unlike Settle the Wreckage. They're absolute, so, in a way, they're less flexible; you can take advantage of Ritual of Soot to spare your own creatures, and you can catch the opposing team by surprise with Settle the Wreckage, but when a proper Wrath effect resolves, nothing is left standing on both sides of the battlefield, or at least, where the most powerful versions are concerned, on the side that matters the most: the opponent's. Only spared are the creatures able to withstand destruction, either via indestructibility or, to some extent, regeneration. Though the latter is often negated by true "wrath" effects, starting from the very first one, which gave the whole category its nickname.
The distinctive trait of these effects is that they don't target (unlike Phyrexian Purge or Hex), but they're also characterized by the absence of any mechanism that measures the creatures' toughness. A Pyroclasm can successfully sweep the battlefield if all the creatures that currently populate it don't exceed toughness two, but not even Star of Extinction can deal with, say, a 30/30 Hangabarck Walker. And Black Sun's Zenith ignores both regeneration and indestructibility, resulting in the most thorough of all sweepers; but it still needs to match the highest toughness on the board with the X in its cost, and since the highest possible toughness is infinite, there could always be a creature that rises above the available resources to cast a Zenith.
In this review, we're also not counting all those effects that sweep the board only if certain conditions are met, like Extinction (sweep only if all the creatures share a type), Perish (only if they're all green), Retaliate (only if they dealt damage) or All Is Dust (only if they have no colors), as well as those effects that incidentally destroy every creature while also destroying every other permanent, most notably the lands, like Jokulhaups, Obliterate or Planar Cleansing. The spells must also be able to accomplish a sweep right away, not throughout multiple turns like a planeswalker or a Saga. Let's see what we're left with - It'll still be a long list.
- Wrath of God (Limited Edition Alpha, 1993): The original "wrath" established the golden rule of all the spells that will follow in its footsteps: four mana, not targeted, no regeneration allowed, and white (more than half of the cards in this list are indeed white). It's still one of the safest ways to sweep the board, and its Eighth Edition reprint makes it legal in Modern too, although some of the subsequent takes on the concept have sort of made it obsolete, though not entirely.
- Winds of Rath (Tempest, 1997): After red tried its hand at a more inclusive type of sweeping with Jokulhaups (and its Portal variant, Devastation), white came back with the first true follow-up to Wrath of God, which had been the only member of its own club for four years. Winds of Rath does involve a condition, but it's a negative one more meant to spare some creatures than to restrict its field of action. In fact, the implicit plan it suggests is to enchant your creatures and then attempt a one-sided sweeping. This feature alone doesn't warrant the increased mana cost under most circumstances, but it still represents a unique way to benefit from a sweep.
- Living Death (Tempest, 1997): Perhaps it's not immediately obvious, because it's designed to do more than that, but Living Death can just be seen as a five-mana Wrath of God, which means it's the first true black sweeper. Best case scenario, your opponent's graveyard is empty when you resolve the effect, so the impact is maximized, and the sweeping is one-sided. The suspend version, Time Spiral's Living End, works in the same way, so we'll just mention it here without making a separate entry.
- Mogg Infestation (Stronghold, 1998): This strange, mostly forgotten way to unconditionally sweep the opposing side of the board comes with a severe drawback. Sure, abilities are removed and bodies reduced to a bare minimum, but you mostly sweep against aggro, and doubling an aggro deck's board presence, even if they're just 1/1 Goblins, doesn't sound like the best idea.
- Rain of Daggers (Portal Second Age, 1998): Up until this point, black still wasn't able to hurt itself (cfr. Terror), something that was reflected even in its first attempt at sweeping with Legends' Hellfire, which is not part of this list because its condition is broad enough we can never be sure the enemy side of the board will actually clear. Rain of Daggers expands on Hellfire's scope by removing the nonblack clause, while maintaining another typical black downside, the self-damage. At the same time, this is the first spell that makes sure the sweeping is always one-sided and doesn't leave anything behind. Not bad for a starter-level card.
- Overwhelming Forces (Portal Three Kingdoms, 1999): The next (and last) Portal set brought Rain of Daggers to its next logical step, creating a very expensive spell which is also the best board sweeper ever printed to this day, trading loss of life for potentially massive card-draw, while not affecting your own board state in the least. Eight mana is generally a too steep price to pay, but not in slower formats like Commander, where Overwhelming Forces is a welcome and popular sweeping option.
- False Prophet (Urza's Destiny, 1999): Dropping for Wrath of God mana, False Prophet requires some sacrifice outlet to be put to work right away, but in the end he'll let you enjoy the first instance of mass creature exile. He's just as likely to be employed in the role of attack deterrent, though.
- Forced March (Mercadian Masques, 1999): Forced March's effectiveness is linked to an X, but the value for CMC is a finite amount (currently topping at 16), whereas the maximum toughness of a creature, as noted, is infinite. Therefore, we know exactly how much mana Forced March requires to sweep any battlefield, and it's definitely too much mana in most cases (just the presence of an average finisher like Lyra Dawnbringer would make it cost as much as Overwhelming Forces, with none of the upsides). The idea was, in fact, to use Forced March only to affect lesser creatures while leaving your big ones untouched, thus aligning it with the likes of Consume the Meek and becoming a subset of broader effects like Pernicious Deed. It had to be noted that it can function as a universal sweeper, too, if somewhat inefficiently.
- Mageta the Lion (Prophecy, 2000): The Mercadian Spellshapers are able to turn any card in your hand into their favorite spell, but the cycle of which Mageta is part comprises the more powerful effects, so the discard cost is doubled. This means Mageta's Wrath of God requires two extra cards and, if you want to resolve it in one turn, a total of nine mana and a way to give Mageta haste. On the plus side, Mageta himself is not affected, so you can repeat the sweep each turn if you're so inclined.
- Plague Wind (Prophecy, 2000): Another larger-than-life sweeper, Plague Wind slightly tweaks Overwhelming Forces. Now for one mana more you can destroy the creatures of every opponent (which of course only matters in multiplayer) and ignore regeneration, just like the most accomplished sweepers do. However, you won't draw any card in the process, which makes Overwhelming Forces still the better choice, though they're both equally fine high-end options in Commander, where redundancy is a good thing to pursue.
- Rout (Invasion, 2000): Instant Wrath of God for three more mana. Of course, if it didn't cost one more mana even when you don't exploit its instant speed, it would be strictly better than Wrath of God. But it does, so it's not. But instant sweeping does have its value, especially in blue-based, Draw-Go style control.
- March of Souls (Planeshift, 2001): This time, for one mana more than Wrath of God, the creatures aren't as much destroyed as transformed into 1/1 fliers, which is sort of a risky proposition, and probably the reason why this card was never a very popular option for a sweeper. It basically requires something like Electrickery to make sense.
- Kirtar's Wrath (Odyssey, 2001): The off-chance of creating two 1/1 fliers in late game is not worth two mana more than Wrath of God.
- Decree of Pain (Scourge, 2003): Decree of Pain is strong card that saw a fair amount of play because of its two modes. It's either an Infest for five mana that replaces itself, or an Overwhelming Forces that also kills your creatures, which sometimes is not even a bad trade-off if you want to draw a ton of new cards.
- Solar Tide (Mirrodin, 2003): There's rarely any motive to spend six mana and sacrifice two lands just to replicate Wrath of God, but Solar Tide's strength is the versatility of its two main modes, with entwine just as a last resort. Mirrodin also had Reiver Demon, which definitely costs too much for something that leaves black creatures and artifact creatures around, even if you were banking on that happening.
- Final Judgment (Betrayers of Kamigawa, 2005): Sweepers costing six mana (or more) have been the design space of choice for the first half of the last decade, and Final Judgment at least gave a pretty good rationale for the increased cost, by replacing "destroy" with "exile". It's a big deal, even if probably not enough to justify allowing aggro decks to kick your butt for two extra turns.
- Sunscour (Coldsnap, 2006): The Force of Will-like alternate cost is sure nice, but in topdeck mode Sunscour reverts to a seven-mana basic sweeper, which is not ideal. The chance of fixing very early degenerate boards is likely too narrow to matter, and three cards is not a cheap cost to pay anyway.
- Damnation (Planar Chaos, 2007): The simplest, most brilliant alternate take on Wrath of God: paint it black. Courtesy of Planar Chaos's color-shifting routine.
- Austere Command (Lorwyn, 2007): Improvement on Solar Tide. We've got more options, CMC makes for a better criterion than power because it's usually linked to mana development, and now we can also just go the Shatterstorm plus Tranquility route and ignore the creatures altogether. Still a bit slow, but strategically sound.
- Day of Judgment (Zendikar, 2009): Another simple Wrath variation, marking the first time white gets back a bona fide four-mana sweeper since the original. Given the choice, Wrath of God is strictly better, albeit losing the anti-regenerative angle sometimes can be turned into an advantage; it's better with decks running Thrun, the Last Troll, for one.
- Phyrexian Rebirth (Mirrodin Besieged, 2011): Similar to Kirtar's Wrath, but the residual creature we get is a sure thing and possibly large. Had some use in that era's Standard, not much elsewhere.
- Life's Finale (New Phyrexia, 2011): This one was similarly encountered in Standard at the time. The idea was to further attack the opponent by removing dangerous creatures or combo pieces from their deck. These days, it seems extremely dangerous to populate the opponent's graveyard that way, close to tutoring those cards up for them.
- Dread Cacodemon (Commander, 2011): A slightly more expensive Plague Wind that leaves a big body behind but prevents you from alpha striking in the same turn. Being a creature it's easier to recur (by regrowing it into hand, not reanimating it onto the battlefield, unless you aim for a vanilla 8/8 that generates no effect whatsoever).
- Supreme Verdict (Return to Ravnica, 2012): So far this is the ultimate version of Wrath of God: the uncounterable one. Same CMC but requiring blue to account for the countermagic countermeasure. It's more like an uncounterable Day of Judgment, actually, because it admits regeneration. Still, sweeping without giving a chance to counteract is a control deck's wet dream.
- Merciless Eviction (Gatecrash, 2013): In the vein of Austere Command, but less flexible, because you only get to choose one action, and you either remove all creatures or none of them. It exiles, though, like Final Judgment; the only reason the latter is not made entirely obsolete is that Merciless Eviction requires both white and black mana, which marks the first time the two main "wrath" colors find themselves collaborating on a single card (this is as good a place as any to note that green has no card at all in this list, because green is only allowed to kill fliers, and it sweeps them away with cards like Whirlwind and Whiptongue Hydra).
- Hythonia the Cruel (Theros, 2013): Using creatures as sweepers dates back to False Prophet at least, while also involving non-absolute but still very effective cases like Crypt Rats. Hythonia barely made the list for two reasons: she has a conditional clause, though expressed in a negative form (non-Gorgon) meant to preserve herself and her tribe (it's very unlikely for her to ever face another Gorgon at the other side of the table); and she's not exactly supposed to sweep right away – she can, but for the ridiculous amount of 14 mana.
- Fated Retribution (Born of the Gods, 2014): Fated Retribution is an instant Wrath of God with the same CMC of its predecessor Rout (but one colored mana requirement more) and the all-too-relevant addition of planeswalkers to its scope. It's however hindered by the lack of a cheaper alternate cost for when you don't need the instant speed; you get some scry, but it's not nearly enough of an incentive to justify the overall cost.
- Extinguish All Hope (Journey into Nyx, 2014): Along the lines of good ole Winds of Rath, this Theros card helps engineering a way towards a one-sided sweep. In the grand scheme of things, enchantment creatures are few and far between enough for this to be considered a full-blown sweeper, but you can still try and pack your deck with them, confident they won't be harmed by your spell. Only problem is that it still remains a not-too-prompt, six-mana spell.
- In Garruk's Wake (Magic 2015, 2014): Destroying all enemy creatures AND planeswalkers at once for Plague Wind's exact same cost makes In Garruk's Wake the better card. Maybe not strictly, just because it gives all regenerative guys that work for the enemy the chance to stay alive.
- Magister of Worth (Conspiracy, 2014): Will of the council is a powerful mechanic, especially in 1v1 (mainly because it wasn't designed with that playing mode in mind). In the case of Magister of Worth, it means killing every creature but her for six mana, which makes this angelic nun an extremely better Reiver Demon, not least because you can recur her directly onto the battlefield and the effect will trigger again.
- End Hostilities (Khans of Tarkir, 2014): One mana more than Day of Judgment to destroy Auras and Equipment too. It matters mostly for the latter, clearly (give or take some bestow creatures or Licids), and it's too narrow a case to justify the higher CMC anyway, but it's nice to know this option exists.
- Necromantic Selection (Commander 2014, 2014): This is expensive but powerful, you don't just sweep the board, but end up with the best creature under your control, potentially turning a control element into an endgame.
- Crux of Fate (Fate Reforged, 2015): Dragons are popular but not to the point of showing up in every single game of Magic, or even in most of them (although, perhaps it was indeed the case in Tarkir block constructed, where this card originated). Conversely, any deck featuring a few flying lizards should take advantage of Crux of Fate as a surefire one-sided sweeper, or close enough. Five mana make for a considerably cheaper Plague Wind.
- Deadly Tempest (Commander 2015, 2015): An MBC type of card where you sweep the board and also deal some damage to the dome while you're probably unaffected. Not being Modern-legal severely limits its use, though.
- Descend upon the Sinful (Shadows over Innistrad, 2016): Now, this is the card that signals Final Judgment's obsolescence. And you also get a better leftover than Kirtar's Wrath offers, under similar conditions.
- Fumigate (Kaladesh, 2016): Possibly the most popular Wrath effect of its era. Gaining life is something that control decks crave, because it undoes previous attacks, too. Definitely worth the extra mana over Day of Judgment.
- Sublime Exhalation (Commander 2016, 2016): Exclusively meant for multiplayer. In 1v1 it's a much worse Day of Judgment. With three opponents it's... exactly Day of Judgment, so maybe it wasn't such a brilliant design to begin with. Unless you usually play at eight-man tables.
- Bontu's Last Reckoning (Hour of Devastation, 2017): The cheapest "wrath" ever, but the drawback is kind of a trap, sometimes amounting to giving the opponent an extra turn. Plus, a third-turn sweeper probably doesn't need to be absolute; Deafening Clarion might be sufficient, give or take some Steel Leaf Champions.
- Kindred Dominance (Commander 2017, 2017): This supposedly creates one-sided sweeping, hence the steep cost. But it's worth noting that it lets you choose any type, including one that's not currently present on the battlefield, in which case it just amounts to an overcosted Day of Judgment.
- Cleansing Nova (Core Set 2019, 2018): It might be the best compromise on the Austere Command mold; cheaper but at the cost of not being able to really sculpt the effect to your liking. Still a very solid sweeper that's shining in the current Standard environment.
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