When a Cycle Isn't a Cycle

Posted in Latest Developments on April 20, 2007

By Aaron Forsythe

Over the years, we've seen all manner of dual lands come and go. Alpha had the original—and most powerful—versions. Tundra, Taiga, and their ilk had basic land types and no drawbacks whatsoever. (When I played, we called the original duals "multi-lands." Did anyone else do that?) A couple years later, Ice Age introduced two more cycles—the perfectly balanced "pain lands" (Adarkar Wastes, Sulfurous Springs, etc.) that have become ubiquitous thanks to their many core set appearances, and the just-as-rare-but-about-one-tenth-as-good "depletion lands." (Click on the words "Land Cap" and recoil in horror.) Plateau, Elfhame Palace, Flooded Strand, Overgrown Tomb

In the years since, cycles of lands with various drawbacks and of various power levels have come and gone, from Invasion's clean-but-underpowered "taplands" (like Coastal Tower), to Onslaught's fan-favorite "fetch lands" (like Windswept Heath)—themselves a tweak on a similar cycle from Mirage (like Flood Plain)—to the subtle power of Time Spiral's "storage lands" (like Calciform Pools).

The cycles each have their own little idiosyncrasies, and debates can be had on how useful each cycle is or which is the most powerful, but the fact is that cycles of dual lands are generally very, very boring. Once you've seen one card in the cycle, you can rattle off the text boxes of the other four (or nine). They emphasize function over form, and while they do nice things for sets and constructed environments, they're hardly pinnacles of Design's creativity.

In Future Sight, Mark Rosewater went out of his way to rectify that.

From the earliest days of design, Mark knew that he wanted a "mega-cycle" of dual lands in the set—five lands, each of one of the allied color pairs, each with a different mechanic that hints at a potential future cycle of such lands, which in turn hints at entire future sets and blocks.

I had my doubts initially. After all, to me, cycles of lands were something that were to be learned quickly and then filed away so that brain-space could be dedicated to the other cards in the set. When I play a game, I like knowing—quickly—what my opponent's lands are capable of. I know Ravnica duals are going to fix his mana essentially free of charge, and core set painlands are going to damage him from time to time. Simple. Why should we complicate things?

To arrive at the answer, one must first fully accept Future Sight and all of its rule-breaking quirks. The set is chock-full of things—including keywords, terminology, even frames—that appear on only one or two cards when they would normally appear on a dozen or more in a set that had more focus. The set is half mind-blowing trip through time, half idea audition. If you put a cycle of identical lands in the set, that cycle exists in the present, but if you include representative cards that look to be from five different cycles, then you have given players a look into potential futures. Normalcy has been put on the back burner.

That said, we didn't just let Rosewater do whatever he wanted! Some amount of development went into the cycle. Here are a couple from the design handoff that didn't make it:

Poisoned City
T, Receive a poison counter: Add W or U to your mana pool.

That land is a lot more interesting in the context of the theoretical block from which it comes, a block where poison can be used both as an offensive weapon and as a resource. But outside of that block, it's just really good. There aren't any playable poison cards that may make you shy away from tapping this any fewer than nine times in a game.

Tainted Mine
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
T, Tap an untapped creature you control: Add BB or RR to your mana pool.

Thran Quarry

I don't have any notes in front of me, but if memory serves me correctly, this land was killed for being too weak. It bears a bit of similarity to Urza's Saga's Thran Quarry, a five-color land that required you to control a creature in order for it to remain in play. The problem is that you want your dual lands to work early in the game so that you can play your early creatures. It was unwise to play an early creature with the Quarry because if the creature was removed you'd lose the land as well, and it is more or less impossible to play an early creature with Tainted Mine as it doesn't give you the color you need until the creature is in play. On top of that, you have to tap the creature, which was almost never worth the investment.

Now let's look at some of the designs that showed more promise:

Grass Volcano
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
{R/G}, T: Add RG to your mana pool.

This particular hybrid-activated land was moved to black-red in development and made even better. After this weekend, if you haven't seen it at the Prerelease, look it up in Gatherer. I'm sure you'll agree that it will see a fair amount of play.

Windswept Valley
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
T: Add G or W to your mana pool.
2, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Target player draws a card.

In development we found ways to alter this one so that it no longer comes into play tapped, but the basic idea of a land that "cycles from play" remains intact on the card we printed.


Dirty Pond
T: Add U to your mana pool. If you played a land this turn, instead add B.

As you can see, that one didn't change at all:

River of Tears

An amazing land made even more amazing by the colors of mana it provides. On turn one, it can be tapped for black to play Duress, or left untapped, ready to play Force Spike on the opponent's turn. The fact that the color available on opponents' turns is blue—the color that most wants to play spells at that time—is a beautiful thing.

And just look at that card frame! Because of the high color saturation on the text boxes of futureshifted dual lands, some of them have white text and some of them have black! Talk about a weird cycle!

How is this card not strictly better than Island? As my example above illustrates, you can't tap the land for U on the turn you play it (as you have "played a land this turn." So, unlike Island, you can't play it on turn one and play Sleight of Hand, or play it on turn two and summon Lord of Atlantis.

The card will certainly create interesting play decisions. Need blue this turn? Better tap it before you play your land. Hoping to topdeck a black removal spell? Maybe you should hold an extra land just in case. All-in-all a great card that is more exciting as a one-of than any five-card cycle would be.

Remember, the worldwide prerelease events are this weekend! Get out there and get a good look at the "future" of Magic! I promise you won't be disappointed!

Last Week's Poll

What do you most often use as tokens?
Dice 5715 31.9%
Face-down cards 5220 29.1%
Glass beads 2687 15.0%
Coins 1300 7.2%
Pro Player cards 726 4.0%
Other 621 3.5%
Homemade token cards 571 3.2%
Scraps of paper 474 2.6%
DCI Player Rewards tokens 276 1.5%
Toys/figurines 209 1.2%
Token cards made by other companies 133 0.7%
Total 17932 100.0%

Dice fared well; I'm glad I reran the poll. I hope to have some news on tokens in the future...

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