Legacy’s Allure – The Case for Land Tax

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Monday, November 23rd – This week, Doug looks at one of the most curious cards on the Legacy Banned List: Land Tax. Is the card a remnant from the old days of Extended, or should it rightfully still sit on the Banned List? Looking through the history of Land Tax decks, an analysis of what the card practically does in a game, and the requirements for getting the most out of the enchantment, find out what Doug concludes about the possible impact of an unbanned Land Tax in Legacy, and why this December is the right time to try it out.

In the wake of the DCI’s recent unbanning of Entomb, Metalworker, and Dream Halls, a purple-hatted man looks on longingly from the banned list. Land Tax is perhaps the most curious resident of the Best of the Worst list, and its placement there is perhaps more a relic of a previous era of Magic than an accurate reflection of the card’s power level. With the December 1st Banned List update right around the corner, this is a great time to discuss the merits of a Legacy environment with Land Tax. I’ll look at the general strengths and weaknesses of the card, its history, the possible Legacy applications of Land Tax, and the incentives to unban it.

The Power of Levying a Land Tax

In olden days of Magic, Land Tax was referred to as the “White Ancestral Recall” for its power to easily draw three cards for a single mana. Even more powerful, Land Tax could do that effect several times in a day, and was stackable with itself (meaning that two could activate in the same upkeep and get six lands). In a format where White Knights roamed the countryside and reliable draw spells didn’t exist, getting three cards, even if they were basic lands, was a good deal.

Land Tax leads to very few early-game activations if the caster is playing. They will be a land drop ahead of the opponent and may not get an activation of Land Tax until the third or fourth turn, as they are still able to play lands from their hand and probably have a reason to make a first, second, and usually third land drop. At that point, it’s an open question whether the player will activate Land Tax anymore; if their deck is full of cheap spells and their opponent must play more cards to keep up, they may get several more activations, as they have little need for land drops.

The schematic changes for the player on the draw who makes use of Land Tax. If their opponent has played first and has made their first and second land drops, they may activate the enchantment on their second upkeep to find three lands. Then, the player makes a choice about whether they should play a second land with the hope that the opponent will play a third, or whether they should hold off on that second land drop until the next turn to get another search from Land Tax. At the end of the second turn for the player on the draw, assuming that they did not play another spell or a land, the player will discard three cards (starting hand [7], a draw step [8], land and a Tax [6], a tax activation [9], and a draw step [10]). If they played a land and a spell, they would possibly discard just one card they found during a Land Tax. When one considers that not playing a land will result in discarding probably all three lands drawn, it’s usually in a player’s interest to go ahead and make that land drop. If that first Land Tax looked like a Tithe that got basic lands instead of Dual Land Plains (like Tundra), you’re correct.

If the opponent is playing a deck that relies on cheap spells, they may sit on two lands to deprive the other player of more Land Tax activations or, instead, continue to play into the enchantment to develop their board and play more threats. At each turn, the Land Tax player is faced with the question of developing their manabase or drawing three basic lands.

From this analysis, several points are obvious:

• To get the most out of Land Tax, a player should be running at least three basic lands and possibly up to six to make the most out of a subsequent activation.
• A player must be running enough White sources that they will be able to cast a Land Tax on the first turn if they have one in their opening hand.
• The power of Land Tax is at its highest on the second and third turn and declines in power after that.
• Land Tax is more powerful on the draw.
• A Land Tax activation on the second turn while on the draw often results in discarding several cards, possibly the same basic lands.
• Decks that will benefit most from Land Tax are those that can play few lands by way of running nonland accelerants, lands that produce more mana, or cheap threats. Alternately, these decks can control the number of lands they have in play (with cards like Zuran Orb or Smokestack).

The Hat In History: Land Tax Decks

Land Tax, as mentioned before, generated real card advantage at a time when there was little or none in a format. While it was popular from the get-go in Legends, I put the rise of Land Tax around Ice Age and beyond. One reason was that, combined with Thawing Glaciers and Brainstorm, a player could turn those drawn lands into other cards, possibly spells, and shuffle away the results from the Brainstorm. Scroll Rack was the best application of this principle; in theory, a player could play a Land Tax and a Scroll Rack and put back those basic lands for Scroll Racked cards every turn, with Land Tax shuffling those lands away from the top of the library. This got especially powerful when a player had two Land Taxes in play, letting them see six extra cards a turn!

Aside from Scroll Rack, Land Tax could also fuel Firestorm and Empyrial Armor, as seen in this deck by Jon Finkel from GP: Rio Di Janeiro:

10 Plains
4 Plateau
1 Undiscovered Paradise
3 Order of Leitbur
3 Phyrexian War Beast
4 Savannah Lions
4 Soltari Priest
4 White Knight
1 Armageddon
3 Disenchant
4 Empyrial Armor
1 Firestorm
4 Land Tax
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Scroll Rack
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Tithe

You can see how he combined inexpensive threats like White Weenie creatures with the long-term Tax engine and Tithe, enabling him to thin out his deck and exchange those cards for threats. His mana curve topped out at three (aside from the miserly Armageddon) so his Taxes would fire often. Interestingly, the downside on Phyrexian Warbeast could re-enable a dormant Land Tax, creating quite a surprise for an opponent.

Land Tax was also helpful in the fun, but usually irrelevant, Vintage deck called Parfait. Parfait (getting its name from the word “perfect” in French and unrelated to the dessert) used White enchantments in conjunction with Land Tax and Scroll Rack to play hoser cards and grind down an opponent. Here is an antiquated list from 2000:

3 Land Tax
2 Scroll Rack
2 Zuran Orb
1 Balance
3 Swords to Plowshares
1 Moat
1 Wrath of God
3 Aura of Silence
1 Story Circle
1 Ivory Mask
1 Ivory Tower
1 Enlightened Tutor
4 Abeyance
1 Planar Birth
4 Argivian Find
1 Replenish
3 Sacred Mesa
1 Jester’s Cap
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Soldevi Digger
1 Library of Alexandria
1 Serra’s Sanctum
13 Plains
1 Strip Mine
3 Wasteland
1 Lotus Petal
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Diamond
1 Sol Ring

I loved tooling around with Parfait and its subsequent incarnations that splashed Blood Moon, Ground Seal and the like, but they had a very hard time competing with other decks like Keeper, Stacker 2, and Mono-Blue; Parfait eventually disappeared from Vintage. It is, however, an example of another take on Land Tax that used Moxen to build up a manabase capable of casting spells while remaining at a low actual land-count to utilize Land Tax optimally.

We can see from a historical exploration that Land Tax has been used primarily to get three cards repeatedly to fuel another engine and does not, perhaps as the designers intended, balance the playing field for a White mage who is mana-screwed or facing Stone Rains. Thus, to evaluate its power in Legacy, we have to remember that Land Tax would likely be used as an engine card, which is a pretty powerful category.

Possible Applications of Land Tax in Legacy

Land Tax would, theoretically, play very well in Legacy. Going back to the list above in this article, many decks, utilizing fetchlands and dual lands, can make W on the first turn. For the most part, Legacy mana curves are low and many decks function well with two or three lands out. Thus, if a player had a good reason for playing Land Tax, they could make it work. Some common cards in the format interact favorably with it, such as Daze and Brainstorm.

Aside from fitting Land Tax into Threshold-style decks or fringe White Weenie lists, the best application is probably in White Stax. Here’s a sample list from the recent StarCityGames.com $5000 Legacy Open event in Philadelphia:

White Stax combines mana acceleration like Ancient Tomb with lock components like the notorious Trinisphere to create a deck that tempts an opponent into playing many lands to get out from under the stall cards, only to lose their cards to Armageddon. It’s a decently powerful deck and could find a lot of power in Land Tax, especially because it can utilize Mox Diamond and the like to keep its land count down.

The greatest hurdle to running Land Tax in White Stax is, strangely, its mana cost. You’ll note an absence of Swords to Plowshares in the above list; the best removal in Legacy sits at a strange mana cost and, while the deck would certainly like Swords, it would rather cast Chalice of the Void set at 1. Chalice is such a strong play against other decks in the format (cutting off usually between 8 and 32 cards in an opposing deck) that even superstars like Swords to Plowshares have to hit the bench. A White Stax deck running Land Tax would need a bit of an overhaul, cutting Chalices or resigning itself to playing less effective Chalices.

Another possible downside is that the best possible times to play Land Tax jockey with other plays that the White Stax player wants to go for. The best way to maximize Land Tax would be to play a Mox Diamond and the enchantment and then pass the turn. The deck would rather play a business spell if it has one, though. Then, we ask whether we would want to cast it on the second or third turn to compete with other spells and whether, at that point, it would be better than Tithe. To get the most out of that Land Tax, we’d want Scroll Rack, harking back to the days of Parfait, meaning we’d need several spots in the deck that did nothing to lock down an opponent and did everything to solidify an already-strong mid- and late-game. I am not by any means saying that Land Tax would not be good in Stax, but instead, that it might not render a deck that is much better than what we already have.

We should also compare Land Tax to Life from the Loam. Certainly, Loam costs another mana and doesn’t always grab three lands, but it has the benefit of activating several times a turn (with cycling lands) and not relying on an opponent playing more lands. Loam powers some good Legacy decks by combining the card with Knight of the Reliquary and Seismic Assault to make good use of the lands. It has an edge over Land Tax in that it can get any lands and it doesn’t require more lands to fuel itself; while Land Tax wants three basic lands every turn, Life from the Loam can return the same three, over and over. Life from the Loam does not potentially distort manabase development in the way that Land Tax does, but if the objective in a deck is to go get three lands to use for evil, then Life from the Loam provides a very reliable service compared to Land Tax.

I’d like to look a little more at the issue that Land Tax requires several basic lands. Legacy is defined in many ways, like Vintage, by its manabases. Dual lands and fetchlands provide a ubiquitous and superb way to make sure that a deck rarely stumbles on mana. It is made more powerful by the presence of cards like Tarmogoyf that give a lot of power for a minimal color investment. Thus, a player has an incentive to run several colors and many fetchlands to ensure castability of spells. Land Tax needs basic lands to function, and while many decks run three or so basic lands with dual lands, they face a hard decision if they want to maximize The Hat: cut down on dual lands and fetchlands or risk Land Tax getting one lonely activation and being blank for the rest of the game. It’s a decision that I think a lot of players would pass on; three basic lands aren’t an amazing draw and, with the uncertainty of activation and the time it takes to see a result, Ancestral Vision would probably be better.

The Downsides of Unbanning Land Tax

One of the most often-cited reasons for not unbanning Land Tax is that it would make events take too long. A player that searches for three lands every turn and then has to shuffle their library can dramatically slow down a game. This would lead to much shorter actual tournament rounds, as players were mired in the technical shuffling aspects.

I don’t buy this for several reasons. First, and most obviously, we still have legal fetchlands. Many decks run at least six, and the time it takes to decide on what dual land to get can easily take as much time, or more time, than the decision on what three basic lands to get. We also have Crucible of Worlds fueling fetchlands, meaning that the “nightmare scenario” of a player searching their library every turn already exists and doesn’t seem to create enough of a time delay to merit banning discussions.

Finally, we have the big daddy of all time-wasters still legal in Legacy: Sensei’s Divining Top. Banned in Extended both for power reasons and the problem of inordinate time spent Topping, the profligate prognostication plaything spins on in Legacy. If we’re going to accept that a card banned for wasting time in another format is legal in this one, why can’t we apply that reasoning to Land Tax? As a player, I’ll tell you that looking at what card I want to draw this turn is a much more challenging decision than which three basic lands I’d like to get this turn to Scroll Rack away. Considering that Land Tax activates maybe once per turn while Sensei’s Divining Top can activate multiple times across any turn, the “time wasting” issue holds less water the further we investigate.

There is another reason why Land Tax might slow down events: a player might want to stop playing land after their first land, leading to some Mexican standoff where neither player wants to develop their manabase for fear of activating Land Tax. To that, I say “would this actually ever happen?” Would a player sit on their one land, looking at a Tropical Island and Tarmogoyf or Savannah and Qasali Pridemage and say “nope, they could get three lands. Can’t let you do that, Starfox!” Instead, players would figure out when it was worth it to play through the Land Tax (answer: probably always) and adapt to the presence of the card. I don’t believe for a second that, with the current cards in Legacy, two players would sit on one land each, staring at a Land Tax for ten minutes until one made a move.

The Advantages of Unbanning Land Tax

An unbanned Land Tax would, first and foremost, encourage more deckbuilding and designing. The card rewards the player who chooses to play with several basics and eschews more powerful dual land manabases. It lessens the blow of Wasteland on a manabase and can help even out the disadvantage of going second. Land Tax gives us more of a reason to play White and on top of that, better incentives to play fewer colors. This creates an interesting variety and opens up the format to players who cannot, for whatever reason, invest in dual land manabases. At the same time, I don’t see Land Tax being so broken that it distorts the play environment to where Legacy loses significant chunks of its player base.

I am thrilled that the DCI is taking chances with unbanning cards in Legacy. For example, I would not have put Entomb on a list of cards that Legacy could handle, but at the moment, it looks like it’s a fair card. I applaud the DCI for taking periodic steps to clean up Eternal B&R lists. Although Gush ended up being a bit too powerful for Vintage, it was excellent to experiment with whether the format could handle the Blue draw spell by unrestricting it for a period. This approach creates a Banned List that accurately reflects the power level of a format.

The worst that could result from a December 1st unbanning is a March 1st re-banning of Land Tax. That leaves five full months between a re-banning and the newly announced Legacy Grand Prix in Columbus. That’s plenty of time for Legacy players to figure out how they can use Land Tax and to get rid of it if it becomes a problem. If it takes six months to see that Land Tax is too powerful, the June 1st Announcement could still remove Land Tax before the banner Grand Prix. Simply put, December is the best time in the upcoming year to unban Land Tax for a trial run.

I look forward to a lively forum discussion about Land Tax. If you think there’s something more powerful that Land Tax would do beyond Scroll Rack, the Retrace mechanic, Seismic Assault, Wild Mongrel and the like, and Land Tax does that job better than Life from the Loam, I’d love to know about it.

Until next week…

Doug Linn

legacysallure at gmail dot com