Arcane Teachings – Lands Are Awesome

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Monday, February 11th – My favorite card type in Magic is land. Lands make mana, which allow me to cast spells and therefore interact with my opponents. Some of them even stand in fairly well for spells a decent amount of the time. However, this extended season I have learned from working with fellow players and looking at winning decklists that not everyone shares my love of land. In fact, many people appear to have a strong distaste for playing more lands than they absolutely have to.

My favorite card type in Magic is land. Lands make mana, which allow me to cast spells and therefore interact with my opponents. Some of them even stand in fairly well for spells a decent amount of the time. However, this extended season I have learned from working with fellow players and looking at winning decklists that not everyone shares my love of land. In fact, many people appear to have a strong distaste for playing more lands than they absolutely have to. I think this view is naïve, and today I will talk about why lands are awesome and you should feel okay about playing lots of them in your decks.

Two of my most influential Magical mentors over the past three years have been Adam Prosak and Gerry Thompson. Both have helped me improve immensely as a player. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of these men love playing lots of lands. Their general attitude toward Magic is that as long as something unlucky doesn’t happen, they will be able to outplay their opponents and win. One common unlucky occurrence is manascrew, so they tend to play more than enough land in order to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.

Even if you can’t directly talk to Gerry and Adam about lands like I have, you can still see how they feel about them by looking at their decklists. For example, at Grand Prix: Minneapolis and Grand Prix: Salt Lake City in 2005, the format was Kamigawa Block Constructed and the dominant deck was Gifts Ungiven control. The canonical list of Gifts had 23 land; Gerry played 24. At Pro Tour: Valencia, most Enduring Ideal decks played 23 land. Gerry played 26. Most Extended dredge decks play no more than fifteen or sixteen lands; Prosak’s lists all have seventeen or eighteen.

I would also like to note that Kai Budde shared this love of lands during his reign as the world’s best player. I remember reading some coverage early in my Magical career in which an interviewer asked Kai why the Germans always played one more land than everyone else in the same Constructed decks. Kai’s response was something along the lines of “I think we just like to cast our spells more than everyone else does.” At the time I thought he was being flippant and sarcastic. Now I think the statement was rather profound.

I just told you that the motivation for playing lots of lands was to not get manascrewed. What about mana flood? Drawing too many lands is another good way to take yourself out of a game. Happily, R&D is kind enough to give us cards that say “land” on them and make mana, but do other things too. Some of these lands are so powerful that they approximate actual spells very, very well. Playing lots of these kinds of lands will mean that we will usually have things to do with our lands if we draw more of them. In a format like Extended there is an endless variety of interesting nonbasic lands to play, so there are no excuses for having a boring manabase.

I was inspired to write this while I was looking at Extended decklists, so let’s look at some together.

This is a Red deck that contains four Blistering Firecats, four Molten Rains, and a Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. That’s four four-mana cards and three three-mana cards. It also plays twenty-one lands. This is not very many. How often will we hit four mana on turn 4 for Blistering Firecat? Can we even consistently count on casting Molten Rain on turn 3? I trust that Molten Rain will happen “often enough,” but I’ve played with some Red decks recently and I really don’t believe that Blistering Firecat will happen on time anywhere near as much as this deck wants. To me, this deck does not play enough lands.

I understand why someone would want to cheat on mana with a Red deck. Red doesn’t get any deck manipulation, so in the late game any land you draw is almost a full blank. However, we still need to cast the spells that we do draw. I don’t understand why you would want Blistering Firecat if you weren’t planning on playing it on time on turn 4. In many ways, this is an aggressive deck. Extended is a fast format, so I think it’s reasonable to be more concerned about running out of time than running out of spells. Even the control decks don’t have time to play more than a few Thirst for Knowledges. How can Firecat wait to happen any time past turn 4?

This being an aggressive deck, we do have to make sure that we don’t flood horribly. Chris Nighbor and Owen Turtenwald solved this problem by putting Treetop Villages in their Red deck and playing twenty-three total lands. This means that they won’t miss land drops in early turns, but only nineteen of their lands are blanks in the late game. They also cut Incinerate for Magma Jet, deeming that the lost point of damage was more than made up for by the scry rider on Jet that allows them to smooth out their mana draws further. After watching Nighbor play, I strongly agree with their decisions. They are playing more lands, so they can actually cast Firecat. Four of those lands are Treetops, so they also have more spells than the listed Red deck does!

As an aside, Treetop Village is a truly ridiculous card. I distinctly remember giving one of my friends Nighbor’s list a few weeks ago, and his response was “Do I really have to play Treetop Village?” I was shocked by this ungratefulness. I feel privileged to have access to such an incredible asset, and I try to fit Treetops anywhere they can possibly go. The card is so good that it’s basically a full spell. I can already hear you telling me that the Red deck can’t afford a land to come into play tapped, but I’ve played with Treetop and I know that is not the case. You have the time, and it’s worth it.

Next up, we have…

This is a dredge deck. I will spare you the explanation of what the deck does.

The first thing to ponder is what it takes for an opening hand in this deck to be keepable. My dredge experience is limited, but my understanding is that at minimum you need a dredge card, a discard outlet, and the mana to cast that discard outlet. I suppose it may also be acceptable to have a couple of card drawing spells without a dredge card, but this would make me nervous. We would also like to see a card that allows us to draw many cards, like Breakthrough, which will allow us to flip our deck over very quickly and hopefully win.

There are obvious limits to the number of good dredge cards and discard outlets this deck can play. Stinkweed Imp and Grave-Troll are automatic, but then Darkblast and Golgari Thug are less exciting. Past Careful Study, Breakthrough, and Tolarian Winds, there aren’t any more good spells we can use to draw and discard cards in quantity. The only resource we have access to as much as we want of is lands. With only ten lands, it’s not terribly uncommon that this deck will simply not find one of those. I don’t understand why one would want to introduce another source of inconsistency by playing so few lands when we literally cannot keep a hand that doesn’t have one.

The thing about this list that is truly strange to me is that it does not play Cephalid Coliseum. When I said that the only good spells that draw and discard lots of cards are Careful Study, Breakthrough, and Tolarian Winds, I was being deceptive. Cephalid Coliseum is absolutely awesome for the dredge deck even if you think of it as just a one-mana spell. I would play the card if it didn’t make mana! It’s nice that sometimes you can keep a two-Coliseum hand with a Study and a Breakthrough, but the real point of the card is that it lets you flip your deck over very, very fast. I do not understand why a dredge player would not want to play it, or honestly, how they could win a PTQ without it. Clearly it can happen, but I just don’t get it.

Note that we could just slot in four Cephalid Coliseums for four random spells in that list, and we would get a deck that had the same number of effective spells but had four more lands that would go a long way toward stabilizing its draws. This kind of free consistency-enhancing effect is the why nonbasic lands that fake being spells are awesome.

Even in very narrow formats, there are almost always interesting nonbasic lands around that you can use to help leverage your manabase to do more than just cast spells. Time Spiral Block Constructed offered us Tolaria West, Llanowar Reborn, Keldon Megaliths, Urza’s Factory, Academy Ruins, Vesuva, storage lands, and Desert, and that was just a block format. These lands were so good at doing things other than make mana that people won qualifiers with decks that played thirty-five total mana sources, an almost unheard-of number. Standard has a very large amount of options for you, and Extended is so deep that there are legal lands that do almost anything you could possibly want. I said in my manabase article that I was sure that someone would surprise me with something crazy before the season was over, and Gerry did just that with Miren in Next Level Blue. Those lands are out there; you just need to go find them.

Lands may not be the sexiest cards. However, playing enough lands means will keep you from getting manascrewed and playing lands that can fake being spells will keep you in games when you get mana flooded. Respect what lands can do for you, and they will serve you well whether or not they are helping you cast spells.

Happy PTQing!

Tom LaPille

Postscript: I have been having problems with my audio input software. It is possible that I will write up the Affinity match I talked about in the forums at some point, but right now it is not in a shape that I feel comfortable giving you as my article for a week. I may just put it up on YouTube without an article and let that be that; the audio is recorded, but it’s out of sync by a couple seconds and there are some other problems.