Sullivan’s Satchel: Double-Faced Cards, Reprint Equity, And Landfall

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag for questions on Zendikar Rising’s mechanics, double-faced cards, and the themes of the plane.

Farsight Adept, illustrated by Cristi Balanescu

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. Yesterday, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) began rolling out previews for Zendikar Rising, along with the 2021 release schedule. This represents the first wave of stuff I’ve worked on since joining the team at the beginning of the year (very tail end of Zendikar Rising), and there is something special about seeing this stuff for the first time.

I started playing Magic when I was fourteen or fifteen, and at the time the notion of it being someone’s job to come up with the cards didn’t register to me. Everything just sort of came out nowhere; no articles, no previews, just a new set at irregular intervals. I had job offers from WotC at various points but time and circumstance never worked out; I had personal commitments in Southern California, I wanted to pursue commentary at a time when it would have been tricky to do alongside the design work, whatever.

Now some stuff that I helped create is coming through the pipeline. I’m not sure how long I’m going to end up working on Magic — I’m a remote contractor and it’s weird all over right now. But these sets are forever, and I hope you’ll indulge a victory lap of sorts during the preview season.

With that, from first-ballot Hall of Fame MTGO PTQ grinder Stainerson aka Tommy Ashton:

I think I like the double-faced duals, but I’m worried about the logistical cost of having too many double-faced cards in a deck, opening hand, etc. How should I weigh this against like, fetchlands (lots of shuffling!), painlands (losing life isn’t fun!), etc. And does the amount of digital play change how those costs are considered design-side?

My stance has softened on some of the “negative costing” critiques over the last year or so, partially because a lot of different types of people play Magic and people are into lots of different stuff (this doesn’t hand-wave what you should make good or make the best, to be clear), and partially because you’ve gotta make so many cards that you have to mine the space that’s there. Glacial Fortress might be a better design than Adarkar Wastes for a number of reasons, but the game can and should have space for both.

The double-faced cards are logistically burdensome, moreso than previous double-faced cards because they are closer to “two cards in one” than day/night Werewolves or Treasure Map / Search for Azcanta style designs. The fact that they’re clean and simple in digital counts for a lot, but it isn’t the whole picture. To me, a lot of it comes down to critical mass; four or eight of these in a deck is a lot different from twenty.

It’s important to separate “negative costing” from “logistical costs.” I think double-faced cards that indulged negative costing are fine and I don’t think there’s some “overall costing tax” that precludes you from doing it. They share some principles (namely, “a little of this goes a long way”), but they are two different conversations.

Looking back, I think the initial reaction to these sorts of designs overvalues the initial adaptation (two-sided cards the first time around, miracles, etc.) and underestimates how quickly and easily players adapt to things. The fact that these “just work” in digital helps the case a lot, but even if it were paper-only, these clear the bar pretty easily.

From “Coach” Stu Somers:

Do you think WotC is burning through their reprint equity too fast?

I’m not sure what “too fast” means; to the point where the marquee reprints no longer drive sales? I guess there’s a point where that’s true, but I don’t think we’ve reached that inflection point. These cards just go up in value when they aren’t reprinted for a period of time; that suggests to me, between actual demand and speculation, there’s a high tolerance for absorbing them into people’s collections and storefronts. Two quick points:

  1. Reprints create appetite for more reprints. If I can get my hands on some Arid Mesas, now Modern seems accessible. Now maybe I want Sunbaked Canyons or Goblin Guides or whatever else. Assuming the cards and releases are spaced out judiciously, new players can be “crested” into formats that were previously inaccessible and that creates more and more need for a wider swath of cards, preventing the equity from being burned through too quickly (or at all).
  2. There are a lot of Magic formats. Some cards overlap, but plenty do not. Part of judicious reprinting involves not saturating one format too much at any one time. With a good plenty of organized play and other forms of support, Magic can create demand across multiple formats and modes of play, which can also push back against burning it up too fast.

Just anecdotally, to me, it doesn’t seem like Magic is anywhere close to burning it up, even at its current pace. People complain constantly about the Reserved List even though no one needs to own any of the cards on the list to play a supported competitive format. The demand seems close to insatiable and there are so many $10-$50 cards to choose from.

From Ari Lax:

What parts of Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch’s Zendikar side that weren’t in original Zendikar/Worldwake do you think are worth preserving as distinctly Zendikar elements moving forward?

Let’s go to the wiki on Battle for Zendikar mechanics (easier to just unpack everything than divide “stuff from the first block” and “second time around”):

  • Devoid: Devoid is a characteristic-defining keyword which sets the card’s colour to colourless, regardless of the mana required to cast them. While functionally colourless, these cards were numbered in the set according to the colours of mana required in their casting cost. This is unique to Eldrazi-themed cards in the set.

Eldrazi-specific mechanics seems like a good fit to keep in Zendikar, especially ones that are better at conveying tone than richness of gameplay. I’d keep it here.

  • Ingest: Ingest is a new keyword appearing on creatures in Battle for Zendikar. It is a triggered ability that exiles the top card of the opponent’s library whenever a creature with ingest deals combat damage to him or her. Similarly to devoid, this is unique to the Eldrazi in the set.

See above, except ingest has a lot more space in it and could convey a variety of different themes. For example, I could easily see something like Ingest being appropriate for a Golgari re-feature. Tenuous “splash this around” from me.

  • Awaken: Awaken is a keyword found on instants and sorceries in the set, which allows the player to cast them for an alternate cost which in addition to other effects of the spell, turns a land into a creature with haste with a number of +1/+1 counters on it as defined by the card. This mechanic is unique to cards themed around the Zendikar natives

“Lands Matter” is a Zendikar through-line but this is a great execution of kicker. Again, easy to sell this as representing a variety of tropes and themes. Would be into this being semi-evergreen.

  • Rally: Rally is a keyword found solely on creatures with the card type Ally in the set. Whenever an Ally creature enters the battlefield, it triggers its own Rally ability, along with those of any other Allies currently on the battlefield.

Magic has no end of “types matters” single designs and mechanics; would prefer to leave Allies and adjacent mechanics in Zendikar.

  • Converge: Converge is a keyword found on instants, sorceries, creatures and enchantments, and again is found solely on Zendikar-themed cards. Cards with this keyword gain additional effects, or have their effect become stronger, based on how many colours of mana are used to cast them.

Good mechanical space and close enough to sunburst that I’d be happy to have this go wide.

  • Landfall: Landfall is a triggered ability returning from Zendikar and Worldwake, which triggers whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control.

I think landfall is perhaps the best mechanic of all time (maybe setting aside some basic stuff in Alpha) and is so close to a number of cards that just get spelled out in every set that I’d be happy to move to evergreen.

Lastly, and the winner of the question of the week and $25 in SCG credit, from @TallNTangy:

Is landfall only having beneficial events constricting? Would overstatted (or equivalently beefed up) cards with landfall downsides be a valid design space.

Context: Landfall to me seems somewhat templated in “doing game actions gets bonus effect” and I understand it functions differently on expensive cards rather than cheap. Just looking at ways to spice it up.

So, it’s worth diving into what makes landfall so good in the first place. There are many reasons, but off the top:

  • Very simple to play with. Play your land, do your thing, don’t stress too much about it, even if you aren’t playing optimally it’s hard to feel like your cards don’t work.
  • Can just play with the landfall cards you like and play them as-is or really build around them. See Plated Geopede in aggressive red decks versus Khalni Heart Expedition in dedicated ramp/Valakut decks.
  • Incentive to engage in combat. Temporary bonuses are going to err towards only triggering on your turn (since that’s when lands enter the battlefield most of the time), so to leverage your bonuses you generally want to be attacking. One could argue that original Zendikar indulged this too much, at least at low rarities, but in theory I think this is a positive.

So, why has the “drawback landfall” space not been explored? I haven’t had any conversations with people on the team, but a few reasons come to mind.

  • It’s not fun to feel pressure to not play your lands. Landfall is easy and feels good; it’s safe to assume the opposite is the opposite.
  • You lose the “toggle-ability” of landfall. You can’t “scale down” and build around it the same way you can “scale up” and try to play four lands in a turn with your Steppe Lynx or whatever.
  • Anything temporary-stat-related doesn’t work that well. You just hold your hand until after combat. I am deeply suspicious of permanent stat reduction on landfall triggers.

I could see maybe one drawback card being interesting and evocative, but I do not think “drawback landfall” represents space more fertile than that.