Sullivan’s Satchel: Fetchlands, Shocklands, And Cube Design

Patrick Sullivan opens the mailbag to answer questions on Cube design, fetchlands and shocklands, and the nature of Organized Play.

Arid Mesa, illustrated by Raymond Swanland

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I could not be happier that the SCG Tour has returned in modified form through Magic Arena (Arena), with a successful event last weekend and plenty on the schedule in July and beyond. While there’s no substitute for paper play, it is the best, safest option under the circumstances, and hopefully can provide some template going forward if physical play is off the table for an extended duration. This is the longest stretch of time I’ve gone without covering an event in about ten years, so I’m looking forward to getting back into the “booth” (my basement) in a few weeks (haircut/shave TBD). Arena provides opportunities for players beyond SCG’s largely regional grasp to play, and so getting to cover a different set of players under the SCG banner will be something cool and different as well.

Recently, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) made the move to pull all future work from an artist accused of misconduct at a number of shows. I can’t speak for that particular person, but I know from my own experience that it is hard to imagine yourself as “wielding power” in social or professional settings. We’re gamers, artists, other creative types. Often school was challenging for us. We were typically not the “cool kids.” I’m almost 40 now with nearly twenty years of experience in design and commentary, and yet I think of myself more as a teenager getting stunted on than someone with any sort of social or professional purchase. I find it amusing when I’m approached by young adults who seem intimidated, but they don’t have any frame of reference for how I see myself.

All of this is a way of saying — it can be easy if you aren’t careful to “thread the needle” into really unethical behavior, where you convince yourself that no one could possibly be intimidated or feel leveraged by you because you aren’t “cool,” but be ambiently aware that the other party has less agency to combat your bad behavior than if you were someone else. Not to say this was the case here; plenty of people just suck and there’s no need for a deeper deconstruction. But it’s easy to fall into these traps if you aren’t mindful, even if you don’t have bad motives.

With that, from Mitchell McGuire:

Would fetchlands be a problem in Standard if there were no fetchable duals? I know the excuse is always that they become problematic in Standard, but if the only thing you could fetch that enters untapped are basics I don’t think I see where the issue would be. Thoughts?

Fabled Passage is a partial proof of concept that you can make a fetchland that isn’t intrinsically problematic in Standard. I know it’s not the same, but given that Passage subsidizes five-color decks and doesn’t cost life, it’s not obviously weaker to me than Polluted Delta in low-powered formats. When the “original” fetchlands have been printed in Standard, it has been alongside mechanics that are outrageously subsidized by fetchlands (threshold, landfall, delve), and so it’s tricky to divorce their rate in absolute terms from the other stuff that’s surrounded them.

I’d still prefer to stay away from them for a few reasons. First, they cause so much shuffling, and four Arid Mesas and four Scalding Tarns is twice as much shuffling as your set of Fabled Passages (setting aside that some decks that don’t even play Fabled Passage would be interested in some number of the old fetchlands). Second, you can just make some new cards. Why argue endlessly about how problematic Windswept Heath is when you print a new multicolor land? Maybe it’s better, maybe it’s worse (probably worse – hard to do better than Windswept Heath), but it’s a new puzzle, and novelty is so much more important to Magic’s health than trying to find some way to shoehorn the most powerful cards into every set.

Lastly, there are other vehicles for reprinting them and they have “gone wrong” way more often than they have “gone right,” so I believe there are ways to get more of them into the ecosystem that are higher-yield and lower-risk.

Phil Stanton asks:


As an experience kind of similar to game design, have you ever explored or been tempted to explore building your own cube?

In the mid-1990s my friends and I spent a lot of time drafting in Eugene Harvey’s basement out of the remnants of boosters he had opened, mostly Fallen Empires. We tried to just pick up cards and go, but over time we indulged in some mild curation; Flood was particularly egregious and we tried to cut it when we could. This is pretty far away from the 2020 understanding of Cube but I have had some familiarity with some adjacent concepts for about 25 years.

By the time Cube became popular, I didn’t have the time nor the interest in curating my own. Getting the cards was a hassle; I was working in game design, so doing that on the side no longer scratched a unique itch; and, to the extent my friends and I wanted to play Magic ,it was to prepare for events. I think if my arc as a player had been timed slightly differently I would have spent a ton of time working on various Cubes, but it just didn’t break that way.

However, I think working on Cubes is a great way for an aspiring game designer to get their feet wet. So much of the Cube experience is curating something that’s fun, and sometimes that means adding things and sometimes that means removing things that aren’t fun. That framework is much more similar to actually making sets than what is common among competitive players, who treat the card file like they’re testing for a Pro Tour. If I had to make a design team and I got to choose between a handful of successful competitive players or a handful of people who had spent a lot of time iterating a Cube that was fun, I would take the second camp without hesitation.  

From Jashanacramer:

My question is this: Are there any decks that will be helped or hurt in the Standard meta once shock lands rotate out? Will this help diversify the types of decks we see at the top level of the format?

It is really hard to speculate in advance how rotations will shake out. The addition of a set is destabilizing no matter what; remove half the card pool along with it and it’s a new world. Play Design spends almost 400 person-hours a week for months trying to get their head around it and it’s still a lot of guess work, so trying to imagine what it will look like before we even see the cards is wildly speculative.

That said, I don’t see the Ravnica shocklands as being especially high value-over-replacement. They are very powerful for aggressive decks that have extreme mana demands across multiple colors (Mardu Knights) or if you’re leaning into the land tags at all (Bloodstained Mire) but I think they are very modest outside of that and have pronounced diminishing returns once you’re three or more colors. Obviously they’re still quite good and they get played regardless, but as an example I think the average Azorius deck would much rather have Glacial Fortress than Hallowed Fountain in the average Standard format. Assuming there are reasonable multicolored lands to replace them, I don’t see the mana being particularly high-leverage in terms of which decks happen to crop up or become worse.

Lastly, the question of the week, and the winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Tim Rice:

It seems to me that some of the current problems facing Organized Play can be traced to the tension that exists as a result of WotC’s dual role as both game creator and tournament organizer. When you are heavily invested in the sale of boosters, you’re going to shy away from bans, push Standard/Limited as the format of choice, etc. even if the competitive landscape would be better off moving in a different direction.

Meanwhile entities like SCG have the freedom to spurn Limited/Standard events and focus on formats that are more liked by the community and have seen success in doing so. What do you think about them going even further and running tournaments with their own ban lists or even creating their own formats altogether? In my eyes, this has the opportunity to better align the incentives in a way that results in more player satisfaction.

Thank you,


I’m not sure how much the model you outlined in the first paragraph applies anymore. Yes, there is a physical component, and that does inform decisions regarding which formats get pushed and what cards get banned. But with the emergence of Arena (and at least a temporary de-emphasis on physical play) the monetization model has to be different.

From a player’s perspective, a ban is a lot less frustrating if you can get a full rebate on your card via the digital economy than being stuck with a paper card you can’t do anything with, and so the opportunity cost to ban goes down. It isn’t a total 180, but it does move the needle. People want to talk about the increased number of cards that are banned in Standard as some indictment of Play Design, and I don’t think every banned card was a smart bet to begin with, but I think part of that ideological shift has to do with the cost of a ban going down compared to ten years ago. In short, I don’t know if “heavily invested in the sale of boosters” describes reality as accurately as it did in the past.

To the latter, legitimacy matters. People go out of their way to attend SCG Opens or MagicFests in a way that isn’t commensurate with their financial yield, in part because it’s cool to go to the “real thing.” This isn’t unique to Magic — I watch MLB but don’t watch minor league baseball even if I couldn’t tell the difference if the players swapped jerseys, because the MLB brand is so powerful to me. Part of legitimacy is adhering to “official” rules and other norms that give people a shared language for describing their experience. SCG occasionally dabbles in weird stuff (“no banned list” tournaments and such) but they are explicitly the exception, not the rule, and I think you would do serious damage to events (both for the players and spectators) by trying to “fix” the official formats even if the gameplay was objectively improved.

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