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Land Ahoy!


Bernhard Zander
Bernhard Zander

About Bernhard Zander

Bernhard Zander is a PTQ level Magic player from Sweden who has been playing Magic since 2006. In addition to playing, he also blogs about Magic on his blog "The Exploration". When he is not playing Magic, Bernhard is a master student in computer science and mathematics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

  • 12 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Runner-up Swedish Nationals 2010
  • 127th Worlds 2010
  • 71th GP Paris 2011

Land Ahoy!

Guess what today's topic is?

Yes, that's right. Today I'm going to talk about an often neglected permanent type in Magic, lands. When someone starts playing Magic, they usually see lands as a necessary evil one is "forced" to play with in order to cast spells. Lands also play a major role in why people lose games of Magic without them being able to "control" their fate. But there is of course much more to it than that.

Magic is a game like Poker where you have to constantly play with or against (depending on how you see it) the odds in order to emerge victorious. The lands that you choose for your manabase are a part of that. While you can't do much about draws in a game, you can certainly steer the odds beforehand. As a simple example, by playing a deck that can operate with just a few Plains you can avoid getting color screwed.

Building a consistent manabase with a balanced number of colored sources and enough lands to play all your spells is far from the whole story though. Lands can do a lot more than just tap for mana. We have seen lands come and go that can do a wide variety of things, from attacking like Treetop Village to taking out opposing lands like Wasteland or serving as an alternative win condition like Nephalia Drownyard. A thing these lands have in common is that they typically have some sort of drawback compared to basic lands and dual lands. These drawbacks make people reluctant to play with some of the lands, although they have time and time again proven their worth.

For me, the value of lands was hammered into me early on in my Magic career. When I was starting out in the game many years ago, I was fabled that one of many factors why the great Kai Budde and his crew were doing so well, was because they were simply playing more lands in their decks than the rest of the field. Now, I'm not 100% sure if this is actually true, but I like to believe so.

Whatever the truth, the legend affected me greatly for the better during my first steps within the game. My intention with this month’s issue of "Daily Grind" is to raise the appreciation of lands in general and give some reasons why you should be very excited about new cards like Desolate Lighthouse, which was previewed here on Blackborder just last week.

When Lands are More Powerful than Spells

As I’ve mentioned in the introduction, lands are typically viewed as a necessary evil you are forced to play with in order to play all your sweet spells. You need them early on, but later in the game they are essentially dead cards for the most part, right?

While I think that this is a bit bluntly put, it's a fairly accurate description for most decks and matchups. You want to hit your first couple of land drops so you can play every spell in your deck, but once you reach that point, you'd like to never see a land on top of your deck again. You just want to keep drawing spells that allow you to push ahead and hopefully secure the win at some point.

I did say most matchups though. What if I said that there are cases where basically the opposite is true?

Nephalia Drownyard
Innistrad (Foil)

Control decks love lands. They typically want a ton of lands so they can cast their big powerful spells that they use to swing the game in their favor. And preferably they want to play these big spells with mana up so they can protect themselves from shenanigans with countermagic.

When two control decks clash against each other, the value of lands spikes even higher. The bottleneck in a control matchup is rarely the number of spells a player draws per game, but rather the number of lands drawn. Because of the reactive nature of both decks, there are very little proactive actions in both decks, which means that the pilots need to value their threats very highly and go to great lengths to protect the few finishers they have... and that typically requires a ton of lands. Thus, the matchup often plays out so that both players just play lands until one player runs out of them and that is usually the point when the fireworks go off.

So the thing you really want to avoid in the control mirror is to be outnumbered in mana sources, because if that happens, there is a high risk that you will not be able to fight properly when the big showdown comes. If that happens, you will likely end up in a spot where the opponent can play a threat and still have a bunch of mana open to pay for one or more permission-type cards while you can maybe only play one or two of them trying to stop the bad things that are about to happen to you. You probably have more answers in your hand but you just can't afford to pay for them all at the same time, and once a big threat like a planeswalker hits play, it might be too late to recover.

A great example of this is the UB Control mirror in Standard right now. If you have played the deck yourself or if you have followed the coverage from the recent Standard Grand Prix, you know what I'm talking about. It's very interesting compared to a "normal" game of Magic, since the lands are valued so much higher than the spells. Not only does the scenario I described above happen constantly, but you can also notice that the pivotal card of the matchup isn't a sorcery, instant, creature, enchantment or even a planeswalker, but a land, Nephalia Drownyard.

Another great showcase where lands suddenly get super important is in Splinter Twin decks. If you have been playing Twin recently in Modern or in Standard before the rotation, you probably have had this revelation too. When you are up against blue decks or the mirror, you are more than happy with drawing a lot of lands. Having access to a bunch of mana allows you to not only play out your combo, but also protect it with Dispels, pay for Mana Leaks etc.

If we look back at Magic's past, we find this deck that taught us all of this in the first place and really showcases the extremes of these concepts:

Draw, Go

Converted Mana Cost
Basic Land18

This deck forms part of my feature article:

Played by Randy Buehler @ Worlds 1998

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Yes, that deck is really 26 lands, 17 counterspells, 8 card draw-spells, 4 Nevinyrral's Disk and a Rainbow Efreet. It's a very straightforward built deck and has a very straightforward gameplan. You make sure nothing scary hits the battlefield with countermagic, you make sure you hit those lands drops so you can play multiple spells each turn, sweep away anything of annoyance with the disk and then eventually seal the deal with the single Rainbow Efreet or a Stalking Stones. Needless to say, hitting your landdrops was everything for this type of deck.

This is highlighted even further if you take a look at the sideboard and notice that there are 4 more lands in there in the form of Wasteland! Not only was just having some extra lands great for control mirrors, one of the best threats against a deck like this were actually lands like Stalking Stones since they can't be countered, so Wasteland worked double duty in that spot.

The game in general is evolving away from these super reactive control decks and the emphasis is nowadays more focused on these "tap-out" control decks that have a more proactive gameplan. Instead of saying "Draw, Go" every turn, their goal is primarily to stall the game out to a point where they can play a threat their opponent has difficulties dealing with. While the reactive control decks are mostly a thing of the past, their presence in Magic taught us how important lands can be.

So, while situations like the UB Control mirror in Standard right now happen less frequently and on a smaller scale, they still exist and thus it's important to know how to value your cards in these situations and in particular your lands.

Getting More Out of Your Manabase

Imagine a generic GW deck for Standard. Such a deck could have a lean manabase like this: 4 Sunpetal Grove, 4 Razorverge Thicket, 7 Forest, 7 Plains. While that manabase might be good enough to provide a generic GW deck with colored mana, it can certainly be boosted in numerous ways by fitting in Gavony Township for example. However, I think there is a general reluctance among players to play too many of these types of lands because of various small drawbacks that come with them.

I remember a couple of years ago when Zendikar was being spoiled that people didn't really appreciate the common cycle of lands. The general opinion was that the effects were "marginal" and clearly didn't outweigh the cost of the land entering the battlefield tapped. I personally thought that this was mostly hokum.

I perceived these lands as relatively strong when I looked at them the first time and thought that Teetering Peaks and Kabira Crossroads would be close to, if not format staples, and I thought that Piranha Marsh might be good enough too. I ended up being half right, Teetering Peaks was indeed a staple in red decks for as long as it was legal in Standard and Kabira Crossroads saw some play. Piranha Marsh didn't end up doing what I thought it would do since the only true black deck of the format (Vampires) relied heavily on Tendrils of Corruption and Mind Sludge and required the manabase to be basically mono-Swamps.

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that the "cost" of having your land enter the battlefield tapped is, in my opinion, generally blown out of proportion, at least for the smaller (and thus slower) formats like Standard. The temporary setback is more often than not neglectable when looking at a whole game and in return you are getting what I consider to be basically "free" value... and it's hard to pass up on free value, right?

I think, however, that the most important concept one needs to understand before one can really appreciate the power and the beauty of "spell"-lands is the following:

Not every game of Magic goes according to plan.

I realized this at the time 10th edition was released. I was still fairly new to the game and had not yet played with lots of the older cards at that point. So when I was discussing the cards of the set with more experienced friends, I was rather surprised by how excited everyone was about the Urza manland-cycle being reprinted. In my novice mind I thought they looked okay and they would probably show up in a couple of decks but everyone was telling me that "yeah, if you are playing a green deck in Standard you are going to play 4 Treetop Village, period".

To me this sounded very premature at first and borderline crazy to be honest. You see, I couldn't figure out why I would want to lose a turn "just" to let a land enter the battlefield tapped. If we take a generic red-green deck of the time as an example; on turn 1, I'd want to play a Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves and thus turn 1 doesn't seem like a good turn to play Treetop Village. Then on the following turn I'd want to play a 3-drop that I have set up on the previous turn, so playing Treetop Village here doesn't seem like a good idea either and so on. When you reason like that, these lands don’t seem all that great, right?

The problem with this kind of reasoning is what I stated earlier, not every game of Magic goes according to plan. Say that my Birds of Paradise got Shocked on turn 1 and suddenly I have no play for turn 2. However, this opened up a perfect window to lay down a Treetop Village. Suddenly, there was a perfect opportunity to play this card you originally didn't have time for!

Another reason why manlands and other lands that have "spell-like" effects are so good, is also that they allow players to fill their decks with more action in general and thus decreasing the risk of having turns in the game where they have no action. At the same time they allow players to up their land count in their decks without really increasing the risk of flooding out. I think most of us are suffering from being a little cheap when it comes to our land counts. We want our decks to do all these things all the time and are really scared of flooding out doing nothing. These lands allows us to somewhat circumvent this and "cheat" more action into our decks.

Lastly, it's important to recognize these spell-lands are powerful simply because they are lands! By being lands, they naturally avoid countermagic and they might also circumvent typical answers people play. In the case of Nephalia Drownyard, which I mentioned earlier, the land isn't so good because milling 3 cards for virtually 4 mana is that good, even if it's recurring, it's because most opponents don’t have any answers to it and will eventually succumb to it given enough time.

Another great example of this can be found back in the Standard format of '07 when Dralnu du Louvre was the top dog of the format (basically a blue-black control deck). As a response to this deck's dominance, a Dredge deck was born, whose gameplan against the deck revolved almost completely around Svogthos, the Restless Tomb (and Life from the Loam to find it). It turned out that once Svogthos was a 5/5 or bigger, Dralnu du Louvre didn't actually have a real out against that card. They couldn't Last Gasp it, Sudden Death it, Repeal it, Seize the Soul it or counter it. That matchup was one of the most lopsided matchups I have ever played in my entire Magic career and just because of this one land.

Without rambling on too long, I think I have given you a pretty good idea of how powerful "spell"-lands are.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope that you will come away with a deepened respect for lands in Magic. While they first and foremost allow you to play your spells, they can also have a huge impact on games in other areas. Don't underestimate the potential that could be lurking within your manabase, or you might be missing out on something big.

Until next time, happy grinding.


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