Subtraction Through Addition

Posted in Serious Fun on April 1, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

It's no April Fool's joke to ask a simple question:

Do casual players use too many nonbasic lands?

First, I'll note the irony my asking this. My decks often have multiple sets of nonbasic lands, since the point in listing them is to spur ideas. So from Onslaught cyclers to original dual lands, you readers see me use them all the time.

But the decks I've seen from the casual community over the years – and particularly in the last month or so – tell me that many players overruse nonbasic lands. This is a great week to talk about this phenomenon. But don't worry – we'll still play around with some funky lands before we finish.


Given how amazing old-school dual lands like Scrubland and Volcanic Island are, I can understand the historic attraction to nonbasic lands. They always seem like they're there to help us, right? I mean, we all get right away that Carnival of Souls hurts us. We know we've got a barrier if we slip Oath of Mages into our decks. But a nonbasic land – that's fixing your mana, right?

The clearest place to demonstrate an inexperienced player's folly with nonbasic lands is in lairs. This type of land – only in Planeshift, at least for now (what fun is a column on if you can't start an unfounded rumor?) – gives its controller access to three different types of mana. Hey, you can run a three-color deck, no problem! Or heck, why not four? Or five?

These lands can enhance a solid mana base, but can't be the basis of one.

It's true – Wizards wanted us to have fun with multiple colors during Invasion block, and they gave us decent lands to help out. But many casual deckbuilders end up shoving together cards like Stitch Together; Compulsion; and Akroma, Angel of Wrath – and then put Dromar's Cavern in charge of making it all work. When things fall apart, they add Gemstone Mine. When that's still not enough, they pile on City of Brass. Then Ancient Spring. Then Tarnished Citadel. Get the idea?

So nonbasic lands can make fun decks less so, by crowding out the dependable basic lands and offering the controller opening hands like two Kjeldoran Outpost, one Karoo, and the most gorgeous four white cards you've ever seen. Your plains, of course, are five cards down.

What else can nonbasic lands do? They can slow your deck down, like the lairs I mentioned above. This may not seem like a big deal when you're playing for fun in the school cafeteria or local card shop; but even the slowest deck needs board presence sometime before Easter. Lairs, lands requiring sacrifice, and even nonbasics that simply come into play tapped give you your advantage for a price – tempo.

Do you have a really cool trick that requires several pieces be in place? Is your brilliant creature-theme deck regularly swarmed by a more aggressive deck? Does your no-holds-barred burn deck never seem to make it over the hump before a control player locks down? Then you care about tempo, just as much as the tournament jockeys do.

In casual duels or group games, there's always that turn or two where you have to hold your breath and hope, because you've tapped out, or you're mana-crowded, or you've pinged yourself with pain lands so many times that you just can't take another assault. Any game with a component of luck will do that. Nonbasic lands give you an edge in one type of luck – you're more likely to get the variety of mana you need, and maybe even some additional functionality – but they're also more likely to slow you down when you're trying to get something else done.

I've mentioned in the past a U-G-r beast deck I have. It uses Contested Cliffs for creature control. (Nothing like watching a Tephraderm waste one Jungle Barrier on its way through a second.) I used to have three in the deck as part of my 25-land complement, but I got tired of drawing two or three different Cliffs – they're useful in multiples, but you need a ton of mana for that. Also, I would find it hard to cast my Blastoderms and Aquamoebae as quickly as I wanted.

Tempo down. Beasts not having fun. This isn't a tournament problem – it's a casual problem.

So I went down to two Cliffs, and replaced the third with a precious Yavimaya Coast. (This hurt – I don't have as many as some of you seem to think I do.) Now, of course, I get a bit better color. But I miss the functionality – I can go entire games without seeing a single Cliffs, which is bad for me.

Functionality vs. mana consistency. Sometimes, the dilemma is there not between a nonbasic land and a basic, but as in my case, between two different nonbasics! But in either case, the solution is the same.


How should you use nonbasic lands in your casual decks? See them as specialists in a factory. A manufacturer generally cannot have a workforce made up only of high-priced engineers and marketing managers. It needs proficient, smart, but unflashy workhorses on the floor and in departments like payroll. The bulk of your manabase has to be made up of similar workhorses – basic lands that don't require tapping other lands to activate something, don't go tromping out on the battlefield, don't sack to get something else interesting, and don't ping away at your life total at inconvenient moments.

It's okay to trust basic lands to get the job done, most of the time. Mana problems come more often from unfocused decks with too many overcosted cards and too few lands, than from drawing a forest instead of a swamp.

Utility vs. color stability – the classic deckbuilding dilemma.

The trick is to see some number of basic lands as "over and above" the mana you normally need. In my Contested Cliffs example above, the solution for me is to go back up to three Contested Cliffs – but in place of one of my creature or noncreature spells, not at the expense of my existing mana base. That will put me at 26 lands. Given how many Multi-Lab entries I get with fewer than twenty lands, this is going to sound insane to at least a few of you. But you are exactly the people I'm talking to here.

Mathematically, some nonbasic lands shouldn't count toward your casual deck's land count. If you have a land like The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale that doesn't generate mana, it's not a land – it's a zero-cost enchantment, really. If you have a land like Contested Cliffs that only generates colorless, and is in there for enchantment-like reasons, maybe it counts as half or two-thirds of a land.

With that in mind, here's a casual deck that would work in either a duel or multiplayer setting. Dave Hanson, a player in our group, deserves credit for the basic idea behind this one. I've added white and clerics for damage prevention – those of you with memory dating to Masques block may recall Defender en-Vec and Cowardice combos. The nonbasic lands are key to this version – this is a great way to use all those questionable nonbasic lands gathering dust in your box. I even came close to throwing in a Sorrow's Path... but then thought better of it.


The great fun of this deck is playing Urborg and Hammerheim, and watching opponents try to figure out why you'd care about landwalk! Notice that the four lands that don't produce mana are on top of the 24 lands I normally recommend – I'd actually call this land count fairly light, since I'm asking for both and by turn four.

This is one reason why I passed on what may be my favorite nonbasic lands of all – the Onslaught cyclers. They're fantastic in two-color decks, and even more impressive in single-color decks, but in this deck, they are too likely to come up when I need the mana, not the extra card.

Full disclosure: I wanted to do a second deck with even more nonbasic lands, and so I began to build a 5-color deck using both Ice Cave and Pale Moon ("let's see you counter my spells, buster!"), but after about thirty tries it became less about nonbasic lands, and more about my own stubbornness. Better quality than quantity, I always say.


In response to my Wellwisher article, several readers wrote in and suggested provoke creatures as a solution to this tapping Elf. I actually replied positively to a couple of these before I caught myself (and I apologize to those I misled). There were so many later emails with the same misunderstanding, that I think much of my readership labors under a false perception of provoke.

Provoke does make the Wellwisher untap, right after you declare your Krosan Vorine (or whatever) as an attacker. But there's still time for the Wellwisher to tap again before your opponent has to declare blockers. All he has to do is tap, gain more life, and then block with something else since the Wellwisher is not able to block.

For that reason, creatures that simply tap to activate their abilitis are generally immune to provoke.

The Elf is still overrated. I really liked the readers who came up with solutions that didn't even remove or disable the Wellwisher – for example, building your own elf deck with Heedless Ones, and a smidge of pump. Other readers felt I could have done more to point out the non-targeting solutions, like Slice and Dice and Infest. Suffice it to say that the answers are all over the place, in all five colors, whether Steely Resolve is in play or not.

Anthony may be reached at

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