The Promised Land

Posted in Latest Developments on September 17, 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.

Magic developers spend a lot of time thinking about what makes Constructed Magic fun. All of us have spent thousands of hours thinking about and playing many different Constructed formats. This has given us lots of opportunity to develop opinions about what we like. Although we sometimes disagree on the small details, most of the time we all agree on what makes for good Magic. You can see the results of our opinions when you look at Standard.

One of the things that we all agree on is that Magic is more fun when there are more options in deck building. This conclusion has plenty of consequences; one of them, for example, is that the best cards should all be balanced against one another so that no one deck dominates competitive play. Another is that there should be enough strong multicolor lands in a format to support multicolor decks of many different color combinations. If the multicolor lands are so weak that only monocolored decks have stable enough mana bases, the inability to make functional multicolor decks will make the space of reasonable decks much smaller.

It is worth noting that we have nothing against single-color decks. If there's no incentive to play only one color, that also shrinks the space of deck options, but we've found that even huge amounts of strong multicolor lands in a format do not make monocolored decks a non-entity. For example, the second place deck at this year's United States National Championship was a mono-red deck, a mono-white creature deck won the recent Pro Tour–Amsterdam, and the Merfolk deck that is a staple in Legacy is usually mono-blue. In order to facilitate this, we often make cards that reward heavy commitment to a color, like Ball Lightning or Spectral Procession. Another tool in our toolbox is colorless lands, like Mutavault, that are easier for one-color decks to support due to reduced mana requirements.

We've felt this way about multicolor lands for a long time, and Standard has quite a storied history of them. For many years, the gold standard in Standard for multicolor lands was the cycle of pain lands from Ice Age.

In Ninth Edition and Tenth Edition, these were joined by the enemy color cycle of pain lands from Apocalypse.

All ten of these cards were heavily adopted, both on their release and upon their addition to the core set. During their entire run in Standard, they were constants, always available to you if you wanted to play a two- or three-color deck that was functional. They were so well known as staples that I and other competitive Magic players considered it a sort of badge of honor to own a play set of all forty of them.

Unfortunately, as much as competitive players adopted them, more casual players often found them unpleasant to play with. Why would one want to play lands that hurt one's own self? There are plenty of fine answers to that question, but those answers still don't make a ton of sense to someone who has only played Magic for two months. They are also not ideal in play for those same competitive players who adopted them en masse, as every use of a painland for colored mana requires ticking a life total die down or writing a new number on a life pad. That's a little bit more fidgeting around with life total than is ideal.

Magic is Magic, though, and sets keep coming out, so we've had plenty of chances to try again at making allied-color lands that have better game play. Let's go through some recent sets' attempts, starting with ...


Shadowmoor was based around hybrid, so it was natural to extend Future Sight's Graven Cairns into a cycle. These lands are frankly pretty spectacular at letting you play multicolored cards. With just one Fire-Lit Thicket in your mostly red deck, you get access to a whole two green mana, something that few other lands can claim to do. However, they don't help with colors on turn one, and they require another land that makes colored mana to start production before they can help. Both of those things push these lands toward decks that have more lands and decks that don't need to make plays on turn one. For aggressive decks, this is hardly ideal.

    Shards of Alara

Shards of Alara's triple color lands were exactly what the doctor ordered for three-color decks. However, there is no "out clause" to the entering the battlefield tapped on these, and supporting three colors in a highly aggressive Standard deck is a tall order. That's just not something we see much. I am very pleased with the effect that these lands have had; it's just that they aren't ideal for some categories of decks.

    Magic 2010

I've written before about the genesis for these lands. We wanted them to be as simple as possible, appealing to all levels of player, and strong. These, more than any of the other lands here, have the ability to work in decks that want to start casting spells on the first turn. For that to work, you'll want to have one main color and one secondary color, put your turn one plays in your main color, and include plenty of basic lands of that main color. Unfortunately, these lands themselves won't help you on turn one; they just work cleanly in later turns. You can get away with these in two-color, aggressive decks, but they aren't ideal—and they are much worse in fast decks that are split more evenly across two colors.


Once again, we have a cycle of lands that always enters the battlefield tapped. Even worse for fast decks, the marginal benefit is gaining 1 life—something that doesn't matter for a deck that intends to win the game by turn five or six. These have seen some play in slower decks, but not a ton.


Worldwake is a set about lands coming alive, and its cycle of lands does exactly that. These are very strong cards. They have seen occasional play in Legacy, and they made regular appearances at Pro Tour–Amsterdam in the new Extended. A big part of their power is that they give you things to do when you draw what would otherwise have been too many lands. Are you out of spells to cast? At least you get to attack with a Creeping Tar Pit. That benefit exists for everyone who plays any of these lands, whether their deck is fast or slow. This pushes players to include more lands in decks, though, which favors slower decks that can leverage the greater amount of mana that this gives them. I've played many an aggressive deck with these lands, but these aggressive decks still aren't as active on the first turn as I often want them to be.

The common thread among all of these lands is that they can't cast colored spells for you on turn one. That's not a huge drawback for most decks, but turn one is one of the most important turns for aggressive decks that play lots of cheap creatures. Decks that want to cast creatures on the first turn have needed to be very careful about how many multicolor lands they play for a long while now, as their allied-color lands have been excluded from helping with that cause. This isn't a huge deal, but it has definitely changed my deck-building habits in the Future Future League and I've seen those same effects play out in the real world.

By now, it shouldn't be a surprise to you that Scars of Mirrodin would have a cycle of dual lands too. It does. Here's one of them.

I think of these lands as the evil twin to Magic 2010's cycle. Glacial Fortress and friends are willing to pretend that they're just better versions of basic lands, but only if you've got a basic land of the right kind out already. For slower or more controlling decks, that's almost all the time. But what if your deck isn't slow or controlling? What if you want to cast Goblin Guide on the first turn and get your attack on? What if you want to start ramping right away with Birds of Paradise? Rootbound Crag just isn't interested in helping you if you have that problem. Scars of Mirrodin's lands, however, are willing to do just that.

As a developer, I'm very pleased with this cycle of lands. I was initially concerned that the enters-the-battlefield condition read a little bit too strangely, but most people understand it. Once I got over that, it was easy to see that these lands were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were enabling two-color aggressive decks in powerful ways that no lands since the Ice Age painlands have. They were still seeing play in control decks, but later in the game those decks often stumbled on them while the aggressive decks rarely did. Finally, they didn't induce any fidgety life total changes as the cost of enabling turn one plays. It's the best of all worlds.

As with any cycle of multicolor lands, you'll be seeing and playing plenty of these in the coming year. Unlike most cycles of multicolor lands, these push the format back a little bit toward lower-slung decks that start firing on the first turn. We look forward to seeing what you all make those decks look like.

    Last Week's Poll
Have you ever participated in a draft that used Mirrodin, Darksteel, or Fifth Dawn packs?
Yes, and at least once when those were the most recent sets.385934.8%
Yes, but not when those were the most recent sets.10979.9%

    This Week's Poll

Thirteen of the fifteen Scars of Mirrodin mythic rares have been previewed and are in the Visual Spoiler.

What's your favorite mythic rare from the Visual Spoiler so far?Elspeth TirelGeth, Lord of the VaultKoth of the HammerMindslaverLiege of the TangleMolten-Tail MasticoreIndomitable ArchangelMox OpalPlatinum EmperionQuicksilver GargantuanSkithiryx, the Blight DragonSword of Body and MindVenser, the SojournerWurmcoil EngineI'm not sure I like any of them.

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