The Lands That Almost Weren't

Posted in Latest Developments on April 4, 2003

By Randy Buehler

How much shuffling is too much?

I already detailed a lot of my general opinions about nonbasic lands last August in an article called "Tending the Land." Even if you've already read that article, you might find it interesting to reread the section at the end (where I talk about R&D's current opinion that every block should have good dual lands, and how printing good land just makes the game more fun) now that you've seen the new Onslaught fetch lands. I knew they were coming when I wrote that article and I knew they were better than any dual land since thePlateau went out of print in Revised. This week I'd look to talk in detail about Onslaught's contribution to the world of friendly-color mana bases.

A lot of people seem to think that R&D's job is to test the cards extensively and figure out exactly how powerful they are (changing them if they turn out to be either too strong or too weak). However, there's a whole lot more going on than just dealing with power-level issues. We spend a lot of our time and energy talking about issues that have nothing to do with how powerful the cards actually are, but instead touch on other ways the cards impact players.

For example, there were extensive conversations about the Onslaught fetch lands even before we even tried them out; the big issue surrounding them was whether we wanted to introduce that much shuffling into the environment. Whenever anyone activates one of them, the game stops for a bit while that player shuffles his or her library. Let's be honest—shuffling isn't exactly one of the most fun aspects of Magic. In tournament play everyone is really careful to thoroughly randomize each time they shuffle, and the opponent also has the opportunity to shuffle, so the whole process can take a full minute sometimes. It's not quite as painful in casual play, but it's still an annoyance that the pace of play slows down for a few seconds. Most players don't seem to mind shuffling their decks occasionally, but when it happens over and over again it can get old pretty quickly. (I have heard some people point to the Defiant Falcon from the Mercadian Masques block as one of their least favorites of all time because it forced players to shuffle their decks over and over again.)

Because we know that forcing players to shuffle their decks is a cost, we considered changing the mechanic on the Onslaught fetch lands to the following:

Polluted Delta
When Polluted Delta comes into play, lose one life and choose blue or black.
: Add one mana of the chosen color to your mana pool.

This works almost exactly the same way that the real Polluted Delta works except for one major difference: you have to remember what color it taps for. That may not sound like a big deal at first, but it is. You'll usually be able to remember what color was chosen when there's just one in play (though not always), but the real chaos ensues when somebody plays multiples of these (including different members of the cycle). Let's say your opponent taps one for mana and leaves another one untapped. Now what colors does he or she have access to? It's really easy to get confused and it's even easier to cheat in a situation like this. We don't like to create cards that are confusing and we don't like to create cards that are excessively cheater-friendly so we try to avoid card mechanics that force you to remember something that is easy to forget.

Our general policy when it comes to "memory cards" is that we don't do them unless they have a big enough impact on the game that everyone is definitely going to remember. For example, Meddling Mage is a pretty big, splashy effect and it's special enough that we were confident people would be able to remember which card was named. Voice of All is another card where we thought the effect was important enough that we didn't think it would be easy to forget or get confused, especially since multiples are often set to the same color. If you study previous sets, however, you won't find a lot of example of "memory cards." We try to avoid forcing players to remember things whenever we can.

In the case of the Onslaught fetch lands there was an easy way to help players remember which color their land tapped for – we could just have you search one out of your library. After much arguing, we concluded that the shuffling problem was not as big as the memory problem.

That wasn't the end of our conversation about them, of course. Just because the cleanest, best way to do them was with the fetch mechanic didn't automatically mean we had to do them at all, or that we should do them in Onslaught in particular. As we playtested them more, the realization of just how useful they were actually hurt their chances of getting printed. The way I like to think of shuffling mechanics is that there's a certain amount we can get away with before it becomes burdensome. So we have a quota, if you will, of "shuffle points" that we can spend in each set. The more we thought the Onslaught fetch lands would be played , the more of our shuffle points they used up.

Eventually we decided that we really did want a cycle of good multicolored lands to come out in Onslaught. The Darkwater Catacombs from Odyssey turned out not to be very powerful and we wanted to make sure deckbuilders had the tools they needed to build consistent two- and three-color decks. (In my mind the filter lands will always be the "Egg lands"… I always saw them as connected in flavor with the artifact Darkwater Eggthat were also in Odyssey and also produced CD mana. That's just the way mana works in that environment.) In addition, we liked how the "fetch" mechanic would interact with the previous block by sending a card to the graveyard, where it could feed a Grim Lavamancer, help get to threshold, etc.)

Our final conclusion was that the Onslaught fetch lands were worth it in spite of all the shuffling that they would cause. We decided that we would minimize the impact any mechanics that required shuffling while Onslaught was still in Standard and we would try to avoid even doing any high-profile individual cards that required a lot of shuffling.

Now that they've come out, we are of course studying their actual impact. Based on the conversations I have had with players, it seems like these lands are indeed very good and at the same time they do indeed cause a lot of time to be wasted on shuffling. Pro Tour deckbuilders have commented to me how happy they are to have access to them while in the very next breath allowing that they aren't happy with the way they slow the game.

What do you think? Are the Onslaught fetch lands worth all the shuffling they cause?


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Randy may be reached at

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