Your Deck Tells A Story: Building With Better Basic Lands

Are your basic lands feeling a little too… basic? Donny Caltrider shares his favorites from the past few years to inspire you to make incredible finds of your own.

Mountain, illustrated by Samuele Bandini

I am fresh off a guest appearance at Star City Games’s own SCG CON / CommandFest Baltimore, and I can honestly say I played more Commander in a weekend than I get to do in several months. I sat at the table with so many amazing decks, from preconstructed lists fresh from the box to some that had been lovingly tweaked for years. There was a dragonless Ur-Dragon full of Changelings (and shenanigans), a Commander Liara Portyr that played most of its deck for free from exile, and a Sisay deck that went hunting exclusively for members and pieces of the Weatherlight saga. From fun and flavorful to absolutely tuned and busted, it was all there; I had an absolute blast, and want to say thanks again to Star City Games for having me. But I’m telling you that story to tell you this story.

One of the event guests was Magic artist Warren Mahy, all the way from New Zealand, and while I don’t get too many cards signed anymore, I knew I had some of his foil Lorwyn basic lands hiding away at home. I went digging for them on Saturday night, and in doing so, had one of those cartoon-character lightbulb moments, from way back when John Dale Beety and I first started talking about these collaborative articles.

Back to Basics

I love basic lands, and while I have written about them quite a bit over on Hipsters of the Coast, I’ve yet to write about them here on Star City Games. In fact, it was one of John Dale’s articles in 2018, “On Swamps,” that inspired my initial string of columns to begin with! Basic lands are one of my favorite aspects of the game, and in shuffling through the pages of this old binder, I rediscovered why. It’s through these artworks that one can situate oneself within the fantasy worlds of Magic; they’re the what, where, and when of building a deck or telling a story. And it’s time for me to muse on them once again.

Today I’m going to talk about my favorite basics that have been recently released, and how they function as a point of departure for the stories you can tell during your interactions with the game. Let’s look at Building with Better Basic Lands.

Across the Plains

We’ll start in the color order of Magic with white, and behold the mighty Plains. Wide open spaces, sparse or maybe signature trees, these lands are meant to evoke the idea of the journey, and oftentimes endless possibility.

I’ve always found it delightful how artists are able to work in such color amongst what is often thought of as varying degrees of beige: sunrise, sunset, or somewhere in the middle, there are purples and blues and greens and oranges all hiding amongst those amber waves of grain. 

That’s not to say Plains are one-dimensional.

We’ve seen cities, both looking down and looking up.

We’ve seen monuments, and myths realized.

And we’ve even been to outer space. Twice!

Plains may truly have the largest range of any basic land type, but there is only one way to find out, and I hear the water is just fine.

No Man Is an Island

Next we look at blue and the Island, which is oftentimes much more than a mass of land surrounded by water, or at least, more than meets the eye.

Some of my favorite Islands from the last few years have aesthetics that hearken back more than a hundred years, with inspirations from Doré to the Golden Age of Illustration.

And others are incredibly contemporary, rooted in abstraction and imagination like the game has never seen, and yet still instantly recognizable as the blue mana source we know and love.

Not unlike Plains, Islands have a thing for myths, and monoliths.

And yet there’s also a uniqueness to them, whether it’s the traditional idea of what an Island should be…

…or what an Island can be.

Our next stop is still wet, but…different.

On Swamps

The ooey-gooey squish of the Swamp is often what first springs to mind, but as John Dale told us so many years ago, there is so much more to this often-misunderstood basic land. Of all basic land types, Swamps seem to be the most likely to have nonland things present, sometimes alive, and sometimes not (ish).

And we see a world of color return! While most often it’s varying degrees of purple…

It’s not without the oranges and yellows as the sun rises and sets. These lands most embody the circle of life itself, whether it’s the dawn of a new day or the end of an era.

It’s also not to say a Swamp can’t have literally every color of the rainbow, too, and you still know what it seeks to represent.

But when it comes to Swamps for my personal deckbuilding, if I’ve already covered my ‘purple’ bases, I seem to gravitate to one thing; give me a good ol’ classic dead tree, and I’m a happy camper. And a Swamp that has both? Well, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Let’s step out of the Swamp and look to the distance, as we roll on to red and the Mountain.

“Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold”

I’ve played red for as long as I’ve played Magic. It’s always been my favorite color, so I have a particular affinity for the lands that make its mana. Much like an Island, the idea of “What is a Mountain?” is often set in stone, and as such, represented quite literally:

We can again return to this idea of myths and monoliths, which I’m starting to think is a solid article title somewhere down the road; the Spine of the World and Godzilla vs. Rodan, and two of my favorite Mountains, not just of the last few years, but literally ever:

But, as I hope you’ve come to expect, in Magic, Mountains morph into other things. Sometimes they are cities and towns, both literal and stylized:

As stylistic departures begin to take shape, we’ve seen streamlined Art Deco, or wildly detailed linework and architecture (and yes, even in the same set!).

But as wild as things may go, Mountains return to their majestic place of purpose, towering above all else. They are an immovable constant… that is, unless they go boom:

With Mountains behind us, we turn for home and head deep into the Forest. We’re almost there. 

The Forests Through the Trees

Green and Forests are fifth on the color wheel, yes, but as I wrote this article, it turns out they encompass a bit of each other land’s traits. Do you want some color that’s not just green? You got it!

We find Forests function well in abstraction, and unusual form; again, think what a Forest can be.

As well as returning to that idea of myths realized, monoliths constructed…

…and cities that rise from forest floors:

They are home to non-land things, and living creatures abound in their boughs and branches.

And yet, even across all these details, a Forest can simply be… a Forest.

Wrapping Up

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve sat down and dug into the basic lands that have been released, and I hope you all enjoyed this tiptoe through the tulips of Magic’s most formative landscapes from the past few years. You can certainly build a deck grabbing a handful of lands out of your closest land station or Bundle Box, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the next time you build your deck, take a trip down Scryfall’s basic land rabbit hole (t:basic unique:art unique:prints game:paper), as I’ve done, and see what you might find in your colors. I think you’ll be surprised just how much of a Journey of Discovery it is, and as you assemble your lands on the battlefield, you’ll be telling a story uniquely your own.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time.