A lot of cards that deal with removal of creatures can either be plain or have a slight drawback to make them more balanced. In the case of Sword to Plowshares it is an interesting tradeoff for one of the more popular and powerful cards for white.
Like other cards I discussed, this card is a one drop (W) and has the text of, “exile target creature. Its controller gains life equal to its power.” This has always intrigued me when I first started playing Magic: the Gathering. Allowing an opponent to gain life for your opportunity to exile one of their threats.
And looking at it I thought that this card would not be as sought after as it is. This was until I understood the design of the card itself. First Sword to Plowshares does not limit you to exile just your opponent’s creatures. One option available is you can choose one of your own creatures. This may be seen I you need some last minute life and have enough creatures to support you exiling one of your own. Or if you have a creature that has, “when this creature is put into exile,” ability. The design on not limiting you to just your opponent allows the player to make more calculated options around how they want to handle the second trigger on Sword to Plowshares.
The only other card that come close to equaling the power and flavor of Sword to Plowshares is Path to Exile. Again with Path to Exile (W), “Exile target creature. Its controller may search his or her library for a basic land card, put that card onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffle his or her library.” Again it can be seen that this give your opponents something in return for this effect.
The reason Sword to Plowshares is used, from what I’ve been told from players at Collector’s Cache, is in part because of the mentality of some players. When the option to remove an opponent’s Win Condition from the game is presented it is like looking a gift horse in the mouth, they just feel better to Exile that creature than let it stay on the battlefield. The other mentality I’ve head is that when it comes to Sword to Plowshares life really is more preferable that land from Path to Exile. A player can, in theory and practice, find that bringing an opponent down from where they are after Sword to Plowshares is better than giving the opponent an advantage on their land base.
And comparing it to other cards like Ashes to Ashes, which give you two exile triggers but ends up dealing five damage to you the player in return and while it cost three five damage may be too steep in some cases. And with cards like Icy Prison, it may remove a creature from play but only until it is removed by either an opponent’s spell or you not paying the three mana to keep it on the field. Then there are cards similar to Yamabushi’s Flame, ignoring the set it’s from, cards like these that deal damage then remove if the creature goes to the graveyard end up becoming dependent on if the damage is sufficient enough. While combat trick are nice and help, Sword to Plowshares has less restrictions to it. Then there are cards similar to Catapult Master, where it is more costly just to achieve the exile and if the creature dies then you’ve lost that outlets.
These designs like that of Sword to Plowshares give the cards not only value but also variety in formats. And one of the many reasons that Sword to Plowshares has been reprinted in different settings and formats. It shoes that you can never underestimate what a good removal spell can do.