Getting Down To Nonbasics

Posted in Learning Curve on April 2, 2003

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

In his introduction to Nonbasic Land Week, Mark Rosewater talked about R&D's rule that a nonbasic land cannot be strictly better than a basic land. He used the most famous example of nonbasics -- the so-called "dual lands" -- as an illustration of where this rule was broken.


It is unlikely that there has ever been a group of lands more popular than the original Alpha dual lands. Now that I think about it, dual lands changed my life. It was mid-1994 and in the New York area, the Magic boom was just starting. I had been trying to work out a trade for a friend's dual lands, and we could not find anything that my friend wanted. I ended up giving him a dollar apiece and walked away with one of each of the ten lands. About two blocks away it suddenly occurred to me that I had just paid money for Magic cards. If I was willing to do it, there must be others who would as well. It was only a few months later that the groundwork was laid for what would eventually become Neutral Ground.

Ever since that dark period when the dual lands were not included in the Fourth Edition core set, players have clamored for replacements and R&D has attempted to oblige while building a variety of drawbacks into each attempt. The last several blocks have been a boom time for pseudo-duals. In the Invasion, Odyssey, and Onslaught blocks, there are four cycles of such lands each with a different drawback. In today's column, I am going to take a look at each cycle, its drawbacks and how those drawbacks affect your decisions when constructing a deck.

Coastal Tower

Comes into Play Tapped

Invasion was the dawn of a new era for pseudo-duals. Coastal Tower, Salt Marsh, Elfhame Palace, Urborg Volcano, and Shivan Oasis all provided allied colors of mana, but they came into play tapped. Once these cards are untapped, there were no drawbacks to be found. At first, they were a staple of many Standard decks of that time. It wasn't too long before the fact that they came into play tapped began to edge them out of more aggressive decks. Coastal Tower and Salt Marsh remained in control decks until the Invasion block rotated out of Standard, but Shivan Oasis found itself sitting on the bench in decks featuring Fires of Yavimaya and other aggressive decks at the time. Aggressive decks rely on using their mana each turn and presenting an escalating series of threats based on the mana they have available. Shivan Oasis can throw a wrench into the works if it comes into play any later than the first or second turn. Control decks, on the other hand, are able to take their time and can afford to play a Coastal Tower or a Salt Marsh on turn three.


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Sorcery (5)
2 Lobotomy 3 Rout
Enchantment (1)
1 Yawgmoth's Agenda
Other (2)
2 Spite/Malice
60 Cards

Shivan Reef
Pain Lands

Ever since the allied-color Ice Age pain lands, Magic players have clamored for the five enemy-color dual lands to make an appearance. There were the Tempest "comes into play tapped" pain lands, like Skyshroud Forest, but players demanded the pure blue-green equivalent of Adarkar Wastes. Apocalypse was Christmas morning for those players. Not only did the set have a variety of multicolored cards that paired enemy colors, but it had the five enemy-color pain lands that everyone had been clamoring for since the days when Necropotence first saw print.

Shivan Reef, Yavimaya Coast, Llanowar Wastes, Caves of Koilos, and Battlefield Forge offer enemy colors of mana with no drawbacks -- as long as you don't mind a little pain. If you have any doubts about the power of these cards, you need only look at the top Extended decks from last year, which featured Llanowar Wastes and Yavimaya Coast in The Rock and blue-green madness, respectively. The mana consistency that these cards provide on the early turns more than offsets the pain they inflict. Rock players were more than happy to take one from their Llanowar Wastes in order to play an early Pernicious Deed against a beatdown deck. Later in the game they would have plenty of mana to choose from and would rarely take damage from these little powerhouses.

The Rock

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Sungrass Prairie
Filter Lands

Darkwater Catacombs, Mossfire Valley, Shadowblood Ridge, Skyshroud Expanse, and Sungrass Prairie had the smallest impact on Constructed formats of any the cycles we are looking at today. For one thing they do not actually produce mana themselves. If you "filter" one mana through one of these lands, you will get two mana of friendly colors. The problem here is that you could conceivably get an opening hand with three lands in it and not be able to tap any of them for mana. Do you keep that hand, assuming you will draw a mana producing land? Do you mulligan? These are not questions you would face looking at three copies from any of the other cycles discussed here today.

Darkwater Catacombs saw play in a number of Psychatog and Zombie/Upheaval builds and Sungrass Prairie was found in a few Mirari's Wake decks, but this was not the most memorable cycle. While they are still available for use in Standard they have been completely overshadowed by the next block's entry into the pseudo-dual sweepstakes. To be fair, they have experienced a recent burst of deckbuilding participation thanks to the green-red archetype, which needs as many red sources as it can get for Violent Eruption and Blistering Firecat while not compromising its ability to cast early green spells.


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Polluted Delta
And the Winner Is . . .

I have presented each cycle in chronological order; however, had I gone in ascending order of quality, I would still be discussing Bloodstained Mire, Polluted Delta, Wooded Foothills, Flooded Strand, and Windswept Heath last. This second series of fetch lands has been embraced by every Constructed format from Type 1 to Block Constructed.

The first cycle of fetch lands, in the Mirage set, had the same effects as those in the current cycle but they came into play tapped. The Onslaught cycle comes without that drawback and instead costs you 1 life to activate. They do not offer you the flexibility of the traditional pseudo-duals in that you are forced to pick one color over the other when you use the fetch land's ability but hopefully you will make an informed decision based on the mana you already have in play and the spells in your hand.

In addition to mana-fixing there are other benefits to the fetch lands. They serve to thin your deck, reducing the odds of drawing useless late-game lands, and to get you to threshold. They also allow you to play with fewer off-color lands in decks that are merely splashing a second or even a third color. With four Wooded Foothills, a Goblin deck can run a single forest to splash Naturalize or Caller of the Claw with five chances to get that forest into play.

I also love the tricks you can do with the fetch lands. There is of course the old Land Tax trick. Say you have a Weathered Wayfarer in play and you and your opponent both have the same number of lands. If one of your lands is a fetch land, you can sacrifice it and the "search for a land" ability goes on the stack. You can now respond by activating the Wayfarer because you have one less land while the fetch land's ability is on the stack. Conversely, if your opponent is showing an island and Polluted Delta and you are scared of Counterspell, you can wait for your opponent to sacrifice the Delta and then respond with an instant before that second island comes into play.

Turbo Oath

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Let me anticipate this week's mailbag and cut a number of you off at the pass. I have ignored the Torment cycle of Tainted Wood, Tainted Peak, Tainted Isle, and Tainted Field. I feel that they are a unique product of Torment and are not an attempt to replace the original dual lands. Due to their condition of producing colored mana only if you have a swamp in play, they are playable only in decks that rely almost entirely on swamps.

While we're talking mailbag, let me take a moment to apologize for my column two weeks ago. I claimed that there was no man-land that had stepped up to replace Mishra's Factory, Faerie Conclave, and the like. Many of you wrote in to ask why I had ignored Nantuko Monastery. Honestly, I plain ol' forgot about it. While I have rarely seen it used in tournament decks, I still should have, at the very least, mentioned it.

Next week, I will talk about the upcoming Regionals tournaments and how to catch your opponents behind the learning curve.

Brian may be reached at

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