A Brief History of Tap Lands

Posted in Latest Developments on January 29, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

In the fall of 1997, Tempest contained two cycles of dual lands. One was a cycle of allied-color lands:

... and the other was of enemy-color lands:

In return for producing two colors of mana, these lands had what by modern standards can only be described as enormous drawbacks. It's not very fun to have your land turn off for a turn when you are so presumptuous as to ask it to make colored mana, and the hilarious double dose of drawback on the second set of lands feel almost insulting. To my modern developer eyes, the message of these cards is that, if you decide that you want to play a multicolored deck, I guess that's okay, but you deserve to be punished for such impetuosity by a terrible mana base.

This is not the message that we want modern dual lands to send. We believe that Magic is more fun when players have choices in deck building, and opening up the ability to play multicolored decks greatly increases the amount of things that a deck builder can do. Many players rejected the drawbacks of the Tempest dual lands as being too onerous, which left them the choice of playing a multicolor deck with bad mana or playing a monocolored deck. Competitive Constructed players are often willing to deal with drawbacks on cards in exchange for power, but in this case the drawbacks were too great. None of these lands saw Standard play; even in Tempest Block Constructed, green-blue and blue-red decks largely chose to play basic lands and Reflecting Pools rather than go for the double-drawback lands.

The Tempest lands failed to do their job of enabling multicolored deck building, and neither Urza's Saga block nor Masques block made attempts at dual lands. In 2000, Invasion made another attempt that was much more successful.

Players reacted very positively to these lands. They were accessible, they were simple, and they had no recurring drawback. While it was obvious for many players that Tempest's dual lands did not belong in their allied-color decks, it was just as obvious that these Invasion lands did belong. Even more exciting, these lands were strong enough for competitive Constructed. Aggressive decks that depended on the ability to cast spells on the first three turns often eschewed them for Ice Age pain lands like Karplusan Forest and Brushland, but slower decks were more than happy to wait a turn for a painless source of multiple colors of mana. Invasion tap lands and Ice Age pain lands happily coexisted in decks like this one, which Carlos Romao used to win the 2002 World Championships.

Carlos Romao

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Coldsnap contained another set of these lands, but with the snow supertype added.

What does the snow supertype do for you? Plenty of cards in Coldsnap have activated abilities that require snow mana to activate, like Boreal Centaur or Adarkar Windform. However, competitive Constructed players are quite picky about the cards they play, and only a few snow-incentive cards found their way into top-level Standard decks. The best of those cards were Skred, Into the North, Mouth of Ronom, and Scrying Sheets. These combined to make snow lands more than worth playing in red-green decks like this one, which Jacob Van Lunen played to 4-1 record in the Standard portion of the 2007 World Championships.

Jacob Van Lunen

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It is not true that these snowy tap lands are strictly better than Coastal Tower and its ilk. I am sure that at some point in Magic play, a Highland Weald was trapped underneath Freyalise's Radiance, an Arctic Flats found itself at the epicenter of an Icequake, or a Zombie Musher walks past blockers thanks to the defending player's Frost Marsh. However, none of the Coldsnap cards that key off of an opponent's snow permanents saw much play in competitive Constructed, so that rarely came up. In most decks, these lands were just as good as the Invasion ones, and in snow decks they were significantly better.

In Shards of Alara, we printed another cycle of tap lands.

These cards, unlike the Coldsnap lands, are strictly better than Coastal Tower and friends. They make a third color of mana, with no downside. This is quite a big upgrade from the Invasion lands, and as you have no doubt experienced, these cards have been played in tons of competitive Standard decks since Shards of Alara was released. It's rare to see a deck that uses a shard's colors without using its corresponding tap land. A few times, we've even seen a deck that plays two enemy colors use the appropriate three-color tap land as a source of only those two colors of mana, without any way to take advantage of the middle color. Here's one example, which Luis Scott-Vargas took to the Finals of Pro Tour–Kyoto.

Luis Scott-Vargas

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In Zendikar, we printed another set of tap lands that is always better than Coastal Tower and friends.

Rather than give you a third color of mana, these lands give you 1 life when they enter the battlefield. To many players, these lands didn't read as being very strong when compared to the Shards of Alara "tri-lands." To me, though, these lands have served as a lesson about how small a bonus needs to be tacked onto a two-color land before it becomes a strong tournament card. If you're playing two allied colors and can afford to wait a turn for a land to come online, the free life that the Refuges offer is not something you should turn down. The Shards of Alara lands are more powerful than the Refuges in decks that use all three colors of a shard. However, Refuges have shown up in other decks, like this red-white-blue deck with which Luis Scott-Vargas won the recent StarCityGames Standard Open in Los Angeles.

Luis Scott-Vargas

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Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Worldwake.

Zendikar is a block about lands. As I told you during Zendikar previews, we thought it was important to make high-profile, powerful lands that had big effects on game play. This spawned our inclusion of both the long-awaited "enemy fetch lands" and the cycle of rare mono-colored lands that includes Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Crypt of Agadeem, and its friends.

Worldwake is a set about lands coming alive. For the set to be remembered as such by history, there needed to be strong and appealing cards in the set that did exactly that. As part of the Zendikar block, however, it is still also a set about lands. How can we make noteworthy lands that have a feel of "coming alive?" Well, we've done it before. They looked like this:


Treetop Village
Faerie Conclave

In early Worldwake development, when we were looking for cool lands that could come alive, Worldwake developer Erik Lauer suggested that we try enters-the-battlefield-tapped dual lands that could also turn into creatures. This idea appealed greatly to all of us. However, it also caused us some consternation. We understood that Zendikar's Refuges were already Constructed-quality cards, which suggested that any other tiny bonus we put onto a tap land would be enough to drive it into Constructed.

Suppose, then, that we restricted ourselves to a "tiny bonus" on these lands. For example, we could have made this card.

Blue-White Man-land
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add W or U to your mana pool.
1WU: CARDNAME becomes a 2/2 elemental creature with flying until end of turn.

The last ability on this card is quite powerful. If the game goes long, you'll likely get a few swings out of it once you aren't using your mana for other things. The problem we recognized with this approach is that if we did it across all five of the lands, they wouldn't be exciting. Yes, it would turn out to be correct to play them in Constructed, but we wanted cards that captured player's imaginations.

Allow me to pause and show you a powerful card that won lots of Magic tournaments.

Urza's Factory

This was one of the most powerful lands in Time Spiral Block Constructed. Blue decks in that format played cards like Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and Triskelavus that could put games away, but their most common method of victory was sitting behind counterspells, Mystical Teachings, and removal spells while Urza's Factory slowly churned out tokens. This was very, very powerful, but I'm not sure that anyone got excited when they read this card, nor would most people single out Urza's Factory as a card that sticks out in their head when they think about Time Spiral.

Magic developers are all experienced competitive Constructed players, which makes us very well-qualified to judge how powerful cards are. We knew that the conservative designs of these "dual land man-lands" were powerful, but they didn't excite us. We also knew that less experienced players are usually less excited about lands than we are, which meant that in terms of perception the first drafts of these lands were unexciting or worse for most of the population. That's not what the set needed. We needed cards that players would be excited about. We needed cards that were fun to play with. We needed cards that were powerful enough that you'd remember them, even though they were sitting among your opponents' other lands. So we made them that way.

Four of these lands have already been shown in the Visual Spoiler on the Worldwake product page.

There is, of course, a fifth one, and it is my preview card today. Here it is:

There is one final point that I wish to address. All of the lands I discussed before the Worldwake section in this article are uncommon, and the Worldwake lands are rare. This is a matter of limited balance. We could not make Worldwake's animating dual land cycle as powerful as we wanted to at uncommon. There would have been too many lands floating around in drafts that popped out of the land row and beat the crap out of you. Rather than compromise and make uncommon cards that didn't do what we needed them to do, we chose to put them at rare where they had space to breathe. However, Worldwake lead developer Mike Turian made sure that there was still a taste of "lands attack" at uncommon, in addition to the common "Zendikon" cycle the design team included, to make sure that the presence of the theme was felt in Limited. Here is that card.

We were generous with Worldwake's cycle of animating dual lands. We understand that Coastal Tower is a very playable Constructed card, and that Celestial Colonnade is a big step up from it. However, every set needs flagship cards that convey the theme of the set, and Worldwake is a set about lands coming alive. I expect that it won't be too long before these lands will be coming alive and attacking you. I suggest you be ready for them.

This coming weekend is the Worldwake Prerelease, your first chance to get your hands on all the new cards. Below this is the Prerelease locator, which you can use to find a Prerelease near you. Many of us from Wizards of the Coast are traveling to large regional prereleases across the country. Perhaps we'll see you at one of them!

Last Week's Poll

Have you participated in a Grand Prix event in the last three months?
No 7873 93.9%
Yes 507 6.1%
Total 8380 100.0%

Have you participated in a Pro Tour Qualifier event in the last three months?
No 6823 81.7%
Yes 1527 18.3%
Total 8350 100.0%

Have you participated in a Friday Night Magic event in the last three months?
Yes 4585 53.5%
No 3990 46.5%
Total 8575 100.0%

Have you participated in a paper sanctioned event not covered by the previous three polls in the last three months?
No 4616 51.9%
Yes 4279 48.1%
Total 8895 100.0%

Thanks for the feedback! I'm amazed at the Grand Prix figure; 507 of you say that you played in a Grand Prix in the past three months, but only two Grand Prix happened in that time period. Grand Prix–Minneapolis had 1183 players, and 1961 players competed in Grand Prix–Paris. That means that 16% of the players from those two events voted in this poll. That isn't unthinkably high, but it's higher than I thought it would be!

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