he early landscape of Dominarian tournament warfare was a vast plain of almost biblical violence ... except where and when it was peppered by what can only be described as long, grating stretches of nigh-apocalyptic peace and calm. Most starting turns of these bygone days were defined by vast swings in immediate resources: life, creatures, cards in hand—sometimes even land—typified by the disparate tensions of first-turn Black Vise or first-turn Hypnotic Specter.
The animals climbing the bumpy hillside of tournament viability were a mismatched patchwork of black creatures with protection from white, strange and clunky reds or greens, and of course the odd appearance of Lord Hypno; for once, nothing blue at all. The Specter in question sat a unique throne bought by exactly one card's worth of black mana, Dark Ritual (later trials—ten years and more removed from the Wild West of Pro Tour One and its environs—would prove that sans Dark Ritual, Lord Hypno's glossy fortunes were largely stacked with seashells and wooden pennies). But through the lenses of the middle 1990s, there were few early attackers who could drive so many red-blooded Magicians quite so yellow.
The decks—at least those before the popularization of first-turn Goblins of the Flarg, second-turn Dwarven Warrior—often did nothing at all before making four consecutive land drops. Ergo, Hypnotic Specter in the second turn's Red Zone would threaten to pick one's pocket with repeated and random prejudice.
And it did.
Except when it didn't.
And the reason it didn't—when it didn't—was one part Lightning Bolt, and one part the greatest spot removal spell to grace the binders of tournament Magicians then or later, until the printing of Conflux instant Path to Exile.
The power of this removal spell was in its versatility and speed. At just one mana, it was a fine answer to even the first turn's Hypnotic Specter; though "merely" a glorified one-for-one (and one, in most senses, with a drawback), the removal spell proved as influential as an ELE, as defining as a trip to Merriam-Webster's.
Creatures were often chosen based not on the internal synergy they held with a deck concept or archetype, but sometimes solely on their ability to compete with a one-mana white instant. This might be the only format where a green mage would be willing to pay six mana for a legendary 4/4 brick, simply because she refused to give up her vehemence, pick up, and go farming.
And there was a time—believe it or not—that control players were absolutely terrified of Deadly Insect. Not Gigapede ... Deadly Insect.
Because for all the definition, all the sculpting of the tournament metagame that Swords to Plowshares did—all the dancing around that it forced creature players to jig, from correct play with Knight of Stromgald to splashing red for Wildfire Emissary—control players were rigidly reliant on the instant as a first line of defense.
Swords to Plowshares—though never central to the forward movement of any defining strategy—wrote the names of Pro Tour Champion after Pro Tour Champion into the big book of big tournament winners. Mike Loconto followed up on Tom Champheng's White Weenie win by topdecking his Swords to Plowshares just in time to send Bertrand Lestree's soon-to-be-lethal Whirling Dervish somewhere, anywhere, else; and three years later, Bob Maher earned a concession from Brian Davis by Plowing his own Treetop Village, gaining back 3 desperate life in order to escape a death by Dark Ritual.
But why, in a preview article about Path to Exile, have we spent so much time musing over Swords to Plowshares?
Well first of all, the comparisons are obvious and ....
Path to Exile!
Sorry about that! Here is what will probably be the most important Constructed card to come out of Conflux, and in all likelihood, the most defining and dare I say best card in Standard (and possibly other formats) for the next two years:
One mana. One white mana. One creature, gone forever. Mild drawback. As I said, the comparisons to Swords to Plowshares are obvious.
In Standard, Path to Exile will have an important role (if not quite as important as Swords to Plowshares was at suppressing first-turn Hypnotic Specters): Maelstrom Angel defense.
I must confess that at the beginning I didn't quite understand why Conflux—the card for which the set is named—and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker (sure to be the chase collector's item of the set) were so costly, if effective—provided they hit. But once I saw Maelstrom Angel I understood that anything will be possible, from free Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, to gathering up Ajani Vengeant, Cruel Ultimatum, Cryptic Command, Firespout, and Elspeth Knight-Errant all while crushing the opponent's larynx for 5! What does eight mana mean to the Tinker every turn?
As you can imagine, just keeping Maelstrom Angels out of the Red Zone might be a full time job!
As with Hypnotic Specter more than ten years ago, Maelstrom Angel is a black flying creature. It has built-in evasion and a punch beyond its power should it connect. Being black as a Goblin Charbelcher attendant's lungs, Maelstrom Angel is as Terror-, Shriekmaw-, and Nekrataal-resistant as Hypnotic Specter was. As a 5/5, it is out of Lash Out or even Flame Javelin range. If this creature proves to be as silly a threat as some pundits are speculating today, it demands powerful nonblack, and likely nonred, removal answer, and a quick one to boot. I nominate Path to Exile.
And of course everything I just said about Maelstrom Angel can be applied to Chameleon Colossus or Oona, Queen of the Fae as well. Each of these creatures represents a large mana commitment with a commensurate potentially crushing upside ... but large mana commitments nevertheless. As such, Path to Exile makes mana spent on certain fatties look wasteful.
Previously Condemn—an heir to Swords to Plowshares in its own right—was declared the best card in Five-Color Control by some Grand Prix and National Champions, based on its ability to help repel everything from a first-turn Figure of Destiny to a relatively permanent solution to Demigod of Revenge. The Demigod in particular is problematic for control decks, as drawing multiples can make any removal look ineffective. The downside of Condemn is that it only works on attacking creatures, making it significantly less worthwhile against a strategically played Queen of the Fae or a long-term problem that never stings, such as Merfolk Looter. Path to Exile can end any and all of these dreams with the tap of a single Plains, Vivid Meadow, or Reflecting Pool.
We have been operating for the last several paragraphs from a standpoint of what Path to Exile can accomplish, or perhaps more accurately, what it can keep your opponent from accomplishing, irrespective of cost. But the fact remains that there is a steep cost associated with this card, arguably more game-changing than on a Swords to Plowshares. We should therefore discuss, at least briefly, some of the dos, don'ts, whys, and wherefores of Path to Exile operations.
When Not to Play Path to Exile
During the opening turns of a game, it is sometimes very satisfying to wait for the opponent to tap mana to pump Figure of Destiny and then respond by gobbling it up with a Condemn. Depending on how early it is in the game, this might not be the best use of your Path to Exile. For one thing, the Condemn play feels clever because we are stealing the opponent's mana; whereas with a Path to Exile, we are potentially undoing such a smash and grab, and giving him more resources, perhaps for a big following turn. Modern red decks have a fair amount of expensive spells, and a poorly played Path to Exile can accelerate an opponent into Demigod of Revenge mana who otherwise might have stalled for a turn or two ... not to mention that you've just spent a card that can remove a creature from the game and are suddenly being attacked with a creature that knows no graveyard.
Moreover, you might not want to play this card—however much you have to fight your frightened impulses—when the opponent is color-screwed or mana-tight. If your opponent obviously doesn't have access to his or her second color, Path to Exile might be a path to that solo main-deck Swamp ... and you may be facing a Bitterblossom next turn. Similarly, against someone who is mana-screwed, even if you are taking a minor pounding in the short term, you will likely want to avoid Path to Exile's morphing into "path to being able to play my spells" as this is something you probably don't want to issue the person across the table (no ill sportsmanship meant).
Sometimes You've Just Got to Suck it Up
At the point that an opponent in Standard (not necessarily Extended ... but we'll get to that) can play Demigod of Revenge, that's probably all the operating mana he or she needs (if not all the operating mana he or she wants). So using a Path to Exile on basically the card it was designed to splatter will be a move with minimal downside. Ditto on basically any expensive and usually difficult-to-remove threat (Oona, Chameleon Colossus, Deus of Calamity, Maelstrom Angel, etc.) ... Sure, you might be giving the opponent a land, but at this point in the game, that land probably isn't getting them anywhere that they weren't going to get to anyway.
Note that Path to Exile—at least in Standard, and at least at this point, before any of us have had a chance to play with it—seems best used against powerful threats that can win the game all by themselves, rather than the little nuisances, even when they mosquito into a fair amount of damage over a couple of turns.
Sometimes It's Actually Better for You
Most of the time it will take a one-in-six million mind like that of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa's to actually use Path to Exile as a cobblestone in his elaborate multiple turn pebble-path of decking, but remember that Bob Maher once won a Pro Tour largely on gaining 3 life from his own Treetop Village. It might look ugly in the short term, but turning Path to Exile on your own creature can serve as a passable mana-fixer, at least in a crunch. The mana won't be available until your next turn (unless you give Garruk Wildspeaker a smooch and ask him pretty please), but the mana should be available, provided you make it to your next turn. Again ... only in a pinch.
It Really Doesn't Matter ... At All
In formats like Extended, you can find yourself up against a deck with few if any basic lands many times over the course of a tournament. What are the chances that sending a Master of Etherium on a Path to Exile will result in its master digging up a Snow-Covered Swamp? That's right: basically nil. Ditto on Arcbound Ravager, all-in Atog, and even some Tarmogoyfs. Even decks like Zoo—which rely on Onslaught "fetch" sacrifice duals—have minimal intersection with Path to Exile. What have they got for basics? Maybe one Mountain? One Plains? For a second you "have to live with it" ... then you realize it doesn't matter all that much. All-in Red is a special case. You will certainly be giving the opponent a significant resource (when he or she might otherwise never play a second land or whatever), but it is probably worth nuking a Demigod of Revenge or Deus of Calamity given the fact that your opponent spent roughly one million cards on that single all-in threat anyway. Hey, it's only fair to give one back.
So as far as this reviewer can tell, Path to Exile looks like it is going to be—easily—the strongest card in the upcoming Standard format, and a playable staple in Extended and certainly Block Constructed. I don't know what else to say at this point other than this is going to be awesome.