Making Mana

Posted in NEWS on June 27, 2014

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

In the second Journey into Nyx Multiverse article , you may have noticed a line about Mana Confluence:

DH 8/16: Question for the general population: Is this supposed to be "Pay 1 life, T: ..." instead?
KD 8/20: Per Dave and Erik: Now pay life rather than deal damage, to match the land cycles we are most likely to reprint.

Click to see the newest cycle of reprint lands to hit Standard.

Reprints—Functional or Actual

That may not be what you were expecting. Okay, so I have to admit—I included the comment in the Multiverse article because I thought it was ironic. As I mentioned in the article, we vastly prefer the pay life template to the deal damage template. Moving forward, we will probably print all of our lands that have life payments somehow associated to match what Mana Confluence and the shock lands both do. When that comment was written, we had no intention of printing the pain lands in Magic 2015. One of the advantages of a core set is that you get to fill the holes you need to fill with reprints—and that definitely came up here.

Early on in development, we decided to put a cycle of enemy-colored lands in Magic 2015—the Innistrad check lands. In most ways, they are a lot better than the pain lands. They worked much better with the Return to Ravnica shock lands, and they don't have the problem of life tracking that the pain lands have, but they didn't quite work for Standard. Not that they couldn't in the future, but they didn't work for what we were trying to accomplish. I mentioned last year that we were moving more toward printing full cycles of lands in a block to make the mana work for Constructed and for Block Constructed. That isn't changing.

This may come as a surprise to you, but Khans of Tarkir won't have shock lands. I know, shocking, right? Between the scry lands and the Innistrad lands, we found that when we rotated Return to Ravnica, too many lands were entering the battlefield tapped, and it was again having a negative impact on the aggressive decks. Making sure that allied and enemy decks both work in Standard doesn't always mean that the lands have to be the same, just that they are about comparable for decks. So with one cycle of lands that could be guaranteed to produce colored mana on turn one leaving (the shock lands), we needed to replace them with another cycle that could produce that mana on turn one. The Innistrad check lands just didn't do that, even if the mana worked perfectly with the Ravnica duals. The pain lands, however, did.

We did discuss making a new cycle of lands like the pain lands, using the pay-a-life model, but decided against it. Functional reprints would've more closely aligned with how we think dual lands should read, but that doesn't mean we feel the need to always go with the better wording. In this case, it was much easier to go with what already existed. A lot of people already own pain lands, and we felt there was a lot of nostalgia rolled into the exact cards Caves of Koilos, Shivan Reef, Llanowar Wastes, Battlefield Forge, and Yavimaya Coast. Those people get to play the lands they have come to know in Standard for a while, and new players will get the chance to acquire them, as well as the option of using other versions—like the originals in Apocalypse.

The Right Tool For the Job

One of the tools development likes to use to balance Standard is by which kind of dual lands we put in the format. We tend to have a combination of lands in it at any given time—some that are better in aggressive decks, some that are better in controlling decks. The scry lands are definitely better in midrange and control decks, while the Ravnica lands are actually pretty balanced between the two.

Shivan Reef | Art by Rob Alexander

What the pain lands provide Standard with is a solution to a problem—the cycle of scry lands entering the battlefield tapped, when combined with removal-heavy black decks and cards like Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix, are making two-color aggressive decks very hard to make competitive. I don't believe that Standard needs two cycles of lands that enter the battlefield untapped to make aggressive strategies work, but it certainly helps. We have seen a few monocolor decks pop up, but the hope is that the pain lands will help decks like Boros Aggro, while similarly not being ideal for an Esper control deck.

This is the difficulty in finding what the right dual lands are for Standard. There are very few designs that are equally fair to aggro, combo, control, and midrange decks. In general, control and midrange do better when more lands enter the battlefield tapped (since they are usually better set up to playing their cards off of curve), and aggressive and combo decks generally do better when the dual lands cost some life payment, since the life payment just means less to them.

Part of keeping Standard interesting over the long haul is constantly rotating what the dual lands in the environment do, which, when combined with the cards in the format, is part of what gives each format its own unique feel. When we switched from Shards of Alara-Zendikar Standard to Zendikar-Scars of Mirrodin Standard, the format just felt much different, and some of that is the change of dual lands. Innistrad-Return to Ravnica Standard was a lot more about multicolor decks because of the combination of shock lands and check lands, which was more powerful than the combination of shock lands and scry lands of current Standard.

While it would be possible to make every Standard environment have the exact same and powerful mana fixing, it would make a lot of the environments begin to feel homogeneous—and take away a powerful resource we have for fluctuating the power of Standard.

The Future of Dual Lands

It was around this time last year that I revealed that Magic 2014 didn't have a cycle of dual lands . That was because we were introducing the cycle of scry lands with Theros block, and we wanted to make sure all of the decks in the format were on even footing. I have been very happy, overall, with how the scry lands have played, although I will admit I wish the non-mono-colored aggressive decks had been a bit stronger this year. We left the check lands out of Magic 2014 because it would've been more mana fixing in Standard than we would've wanted to support Theros. We also wanted to make sure the mana fixing was distributed in such a way that all decks had access to enough to cast their spells.

So, if Magic 2015 only has five lands, how will Standard cope? Have we changed our thinking on dual lands?

The answer is no—the statement I made last year is still true—our hope moving forward with Standard is to make sure that players have the mana base to make their decks work, and part of that means that players in Block will also have adequate mana. It probably won't come as a surprise for you to find out that Khans of Tarkir has a cycle of dual lands—the last Magic fall expansion to not have a set of dual lands was Mirrodin (although, I will admit that Time Spiral's charge lands left quite a bit to be desired in terms of actual mana fixing). We still plan on letting players cast their spells. We are just breaking things up a bit again.

I can't tell you anything about the Khans of Tarkir cycle of dual lands yet, but I can tell you that they will make an impact on Standard. I know there was some skepticism last year when I revealed the scry lands for the first time, which many players believed wouldn't be strong enough to see Standard play. Seeing that there are decks playing off-color scry lands, and also that they have begun to show up in Modern, I think it is safe to say the lands were powerful enough.

Well, that's it for this week. By the time my article goes up next week, the full Magic 2015 Card Image Gallery will be up, so I won't have a preview card. Instead, I will talk about the Magic 2015 set as a whole and give you some insights on what the development team was working on.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)