Basically Good Enough

Posted in Latest Developments on August 17, 2007

By Aaron Forsythe

I've been part of some interesting departmental discussions over the past year about lands—specifically about basic lands and their role in the game's big picture.

What would go wrong if we decided to print the following card?

[Green Land]
T: Add G to your mana pool.
G, T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Gain 1 life.

Let's talk power level. Is this card, overall, more or less powerful than a dual land like Stomping Ground? Is it more or less powerful than Pendelhaven, Treetop Village, or Llanowar Reborn? If the answer to each of those questions isn't "less," then it's at least close—Green Land appears to be within the acceptable power level of printable land cards. That is reason enough for some R&D folks to consider a card like this fine to print.


The problem I see with this card is that it is, in a vacuum, "correct" to replace four Forests with four of these is just about every Magic deck ever built. By "correct" I mean that it doesn't hurt you at all yet increases your chance of winning with the deck. How much does it need to increases your chances to be worth including? Anything measurably positive. Heck, replace the ", " activation with ", " and it still outperforms Forest in just abut every green deck.

The camp in favor of this card points out that the phrase "just about every green deck" is not the same as "every green deck," and as long as it isn't "every," then there are still deckbuilding choices to be made, and hence it isn't unprintably better. The two cases in which someone would choose to include Forest over this card in decks are (a) the deck contains cards that care about having lots of Forests at your disposal, like Blanchwood Armor and Baru, Fist of Krosa or (b) the environment you play in is full of cards that are harsh on nonbasic lands, like Detritivore and Wasteland. It would be possible, the "for" camp argues, to print lands like these in a set full of both kinds of cards—those that love basic lands and those that hate nonbasics—to keep the decision-making intentionally high and to leave the question open as to whether Green Land is in all cases better than Forest.

While I'll concede that it is feasible to create theme decks as well as Block, Standard, and possibly even Limited environments for which Green Land vs. Forest is an interesting decision, most Magic games played across the world will not happen under such extreme conditions. Most green decks don't contain Blanchwood Armor, and for those players, it is correct to put four Green Lands in all their green decks.

"So what?" you may ask. Fair enough, although I have two reasons why I believe it's bad to outmode Forest. One, and I believe this is just a "feel" thing, I like the sanctity of the basic land. There is something reassuring about the fact that, for any random deck you build, the correct way to get your mana to work is to use some number of basic lands. They are simple and friendly, and it's nice to not have to think too hard about some of the slots in the deck. Just about every other card you can think of replacing basic land with has some sort of drawback that gives you a reason to justify not running it. Mishra's Factory doesn't produce colored mana. Wooded Foothills makes you lose a life. Treetop Village comes into play tapped.

The second reason is that having a bunch of lands in play that do things other than tap for mana makes the game incredibly complicated. I enjoy the fact that often, when I glance over at my opponent's side of the board and see a slew of Islands, all I need to know is that he has three blue mana untapped. Sometimes, of course, it gets more complicated than that—one of the lands could be a Faerie Conclave and the other could be Minamo, School at Water's Edge with a tapped Arcanis lurking nearby, and suddenly I have to weigh all that stuff into my decisions, especially those involving combat. Some of that is okay, obviously, but when we start letting people replace basic lands in their decks with something better that has a board-complicating ability with no downside whatsoever, the simple Island and Forest will start to disappear from decks across all levels of play, and I don't think the game is in a better place because of it. Even snow lands feel like they fall on the wrong side of the line, at least in environments where the decks contain some portion of both snow and nonsnow (which may only be in Coldsnap limited). Having to verify which Swamps are snow and which are not before attacking into a Rimebound Dead is not one of Magic's highlights.

The last argument the "for" camp likes to use is that we'd only make cards like these once, or at the very least once in a while. It would take a long time for Forest and Island to become obsolete. Well, going down that path at all seems bad to me; I like that basic lands are often the correct choice, both in casual play and high-level Constructed. I wouldn't like being in a world where basic lands—the cards you own the most of—are just for noobs and specific narrow decks.

So even though there has been somewhat of a push in R&D to make lands that are for all intents and purposes strictly better than basic lands, I doubt it'll happen on my watch.


Flagstones of Trokair
That said, I like powerful lands. I enjoy designs that come as close as possible to being better than basic lands without crossing the strictly-better line. Pendelhaven and Flagstones of Trokair are two that I particularly love. At first glance there seems to be virtually no cost to including these cards in your decks, yet the "legendary" drawback turns out to be significant enough that not every deck running Plains is running four Flagstones, and not every deck running Forests is running even a single Pendelhaven (I was looking at the Valencia PTQ decklists when I typed this), so they can hardly be considered strictly better. Both shine in decks designed to take advantage of what they have to offer—Pendelhaven wants a lot of 1/1 creatures, and Flagstones wants ways to sacrifice your own lands. But in decks without any of those tricks at your disposal, the upside goes away, leaving just the "legendary" downside (by which I mean, on top of not wanting to include extra copies in your own deck, you run the risk of having an opponent play one as well, which wipes both copies out). Sometimes this might benefit you, but sometimes it won't; it is that variance that makes it a net negative. Of course, with Flagstones it is less severe than with Pendelhaven, as you get to replace the Flagstones with a Plains, but even having your land come into play tapped occasionally instead of untapped is bad enough. Mike Flores talked about legendary lands and deckbuilding at length here.

So expect to keep seeing stuff like legendary, "comes into play tapped," and "deals 1 damage" / "lose 1 life" on utility lands. No, those aren't the cleanest or the most powerful cards in existence, but they play well enough and give everyone sufficient customizability in their deckbuilding without screaming out an obvious answer. And they let us preserve something that I think is important—sometimes the simplest choice is the best one.

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