Five by Five

Posted in Top Decks on February 11, 2010

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Lands have basically always attacked.

(Some of them have, anyway.)

It is amazing, therefore, that it has taken us more than fourteen years into the history of serious, Constructed, competitive Magic to honor such attacking with its own theme week.

Because ... err ... I thought it would be fun ... I decided to forego the old theme week Top 10 list for five Top 5 lists highlighting the various memorable ways that lands have, you know, attacked over the years. I hope you enjoy them.

The Top Five Lands That'll Kill Ya ... Without Actually Attacking Themselves

Some lands—and spells that cross paths with lands—are so cool that they don't have to attack you themselves. Their presence on the battlefield, or often in the graveyard, is enough to grind your life total into the grit lying around the Diamond Valley, or perhaps whatever is ringing 'round the Dust Bowl.

Barbarian Ring doesn't attack at all, but that doesn't stop it from being an important source of damage.

This card has contributed to productive decks in two different ways, both of which can be stand-ins for the concept of inevitability.

A player is said to have inevitability if and only if from the current position he will win a long game. A player is said to have inevitability in a matchup if and only if they have inevitability on turn one.
—Zvi Mowshowitz


Some versions of the Stax strategy (artifact-based Smokestack attrition) won over the course of long and grueling games, two points at a time, via a lonely Barbarian Ring. The opponent would be locked out of action due to a multi-pronged assault on his mana productivity via Sphere of Resistance and Smokestack; the Ring representing an "uncounterable" way to win.

An ironically more elegant Barbarian Ring inevitability came from a most unusual deck.

Bob Maher, Jr.'s Sligh

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"More elegant" how?


A mono-red beatdown deck?

More elegant how?

It may be difficult to look back at a deck like this one, without having played against it in the time that it was viable, and see how the Barbarian Ring represents the red deck's ability to win—cleanly and consistently—over a long game. It was almost impossible to win an attrition fight against a deck like this. Your so-called advantageous exchanges inevitably cost you life points, which was all the red deck wanted to do in the first place.

Even if you could somehow erect a counterspell wall as you tried to eke back into it with your black or blue controlling creatures, the Ring would get you. There was no counterspell for the Ring. It was inevitable. You either stayed north of 8, or you were going to lose, inevitably.

This is an easy one, and recent enough that everyone knows the drill.

Dark Depths does not attack you itself, but with the help of Vampire Hexmage (or an entire game's worth of available mana, more-or-less) its spawn will do a good job of murdering.

Seismic Assault is one of those sublime cards that has contributed to a great number of very different decks (kind of like, I don't know, Disenchant) ... but in a proactive and highly efficient and distinctive way.

This card has morphed extra lands into "free" Shocks with Life from the Loam in both aggressive (say Aggro-Loam) and defensive decks (i.e. The CAL); during last year's Extended PTQ season, some players even added Seismic Assault to Lightning Rift / Astral Slide board control decks as a faster damage-generating breaker in the mirror.

Amazingly, Seismic Assault has been a centerpiece of the so-called "best deck" on more than one occasion. Aggro-Loam was near-best if not the best deck of its day, but just last spring, Seismic Assault came out of nowhere as one of only two business spells in the Cascade Swans deck!

The various Cascade spells in the deck could only flip over Seismic Assault or Swans of Bryn Argoll; one land "attacking" the Swans was good for two cards, a combination that could easily fuel a player to ten lands in hand—that is, 20 damage.

I haven't made one of these in a while, but this seems like a nice spot for an oldie-but-goodie:

These are basically the same card, so ...

Well, they aren't actually the same card, but I only have five spots per list, so we're going to pretend they are (the functionalities on the two lands being quite similar).

Kjeldoran Outpost was a game changer among game changers. When this card appeared, it was basically unstoppable for the default control decks. Millstone deck? You're dead. Tokens are way faster than Millstones. Blinking Spirits? Ditto. Anyway, your Millstones can be Disenchanted, your Spirits countered; but my Outpost? It takes a special spell indeed to keep it from burying you.

Kjeldoran Outpost was important for many reasons, but perhaps its greatest moment was at its debut Pro Tour. Lookie lookie what have we here:

Jon Finkel

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Jonny Magic broke the mirror by splashing for Stone Rain. His Outposts were as unstoppable as usual, but the opponent's were all belong to him.

A decade after Finkel's genius with Kjeldoran Outpost, its successor, Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree, proved the most dominant threat since Flametongue Kavu in the hands of Team ABU.

Katsuhiro Mori

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Twelve City-Trees in the Top 8; four in the Top 1.

Both the Outpost and the Selesnya signature were too cool to attack themselves. Instead, each produced a string of 1/1 BBs that poked and hassled their way to 20, by hook or by crook (or, in the latter case, by tapping all available blockers before going in for a big swing).

As dangerous and damning as most of the lands on these top five lists were and will be ... if you add up all the "random" +1/+1 bonuses that Tarmogoyf has consistently enjoyed via the presence of a Windswept Heath, Arid Mesa, or Flagstones of Trokair as a lead-in ... well .... Those lands are kind of attacking, too, if from the graveyard.

The Top Five Ways We Attack Lands Back

Sure, everyone loves getting beat up by lands, whether it is the humiliation of being battered about by what amounts to a small and inefficient creature (when our hands are full of sorcery-speed removal), or the completely different humiliation of being overrun by various Kjeldoran Outposts, Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Trees, or Mishra's Factorys. They're all good.

But sometimes—just sometimes—we need to assert what little dignity we have in the face of Gaea herself rising up to strike us at our very life totals. In the category of attacking lands right back, out of self defense, here are five favorites:

There are many "land destruction" cards that we could have discussed in this section. The first that came to my mind was Choking Sands, which in the hands of Brian Hacker, helped make one of the very best, different, black beatdown decks to usher in the modern era ("modern" being fourteen years ago). Another was Destructive Flow, distinctive and inexorable; or Wildfire, one of the few cards in this category to be a Standard #1 card at one point, as well as a powerhouse in its own Block Constructed Pro Tour.

But instead, we begin with Desolation Angel.

What makes this creature so important?

She was basically High Tide.

By the end of Invasion Block Constructed PTQ season, the Desolation Angel deck had become one of the most reviled decks in the history of Magic at that point. Players referred to it as "High Tide," as it was a deck that everyone in the room was either playing or gunning for.

And yet, in the tradition of the very best cards in the very best decks, at the last Grand Prix where you could play the format, future Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys won with ... you guessed it ... the so-called deck to beat.

David Humpherys

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Pathetic, yet personal, anecdote: Back against the wall, I actually played a Desolation Angelwithout kicker to try to win a match against Domain before time ran out. I failed, and he won on the last of extra turns.

People hated this deck. Just imagine, neither Psychatog nor Arcbound Ravager had even beenprinted yet.

French kissing an electrical socket.

Waging a war on two fronts.

Not countering the end-of-turn Vampiric Tutor.

In Magic, as in life or in war, there are things that you just shouldn't do. Letting the Vampiric Tutor resolve is so avoidable ... and yet so many mages who thought they knew more than they really did fell prey to this ploy-play.

It seems obvious that you shouldn't counter it.

They are paying 2 life.

You can counter whatever they just got.

It will be a two-for-one ...

Except when they just got Dust Bowl. You ain't countering that.

A Dust Bowl "alone" with a couple of extra lands can lock a blue deck out of a color (say, blue), but when combined with Yavimaya Elder (in The Rock) or Yawgmoth's Will (in Napster), the Vampiric Tutor-for-Dust Bowl play can avalanche into quite the midgame mana screw.

Ask Jon Finkel what his favorite deck of all time was, and he'll tell you about hammering his opponent's mana with Winter Orb.

But ask him what the best deck he ever played was, and he'll tell you about hammering his opponent's mana with Winter Orb (except that it costs twice as much). This deck was so good, it was played by both the finalists of the 2000 World Championships, future Hall of Famers both:

Jon Finkel's Tinker

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Rising Waters gets the nod in this top five list over the other strategic mana control card (Mishra's Helix) because it won an additional Pro Tour that year.

Sigurd Eskeland's Rising Waters

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Basically the poster child for mana control.

One of the least fun cards to play against, ever.

One mana more expensive (and one mana cheaper than) ....

Unlike some of the other spells on this list, Reap and Sow—when it deigned to actually interact with the opponent's lands—did so with style. Kill your 'Tron piece, go get my own 'Tron piece ... whatever. Darksteel Colossus you!

The Top Five Spells That Make Lands Attack

Sure, you've got your Faerie Conclaves and your Forbidding Watchtowers and your, I don't know, Ghitu Encampments? These are all lands that can attack by themselves (or in groups if you want), but most lands, by and large, lack the ability to attack.

But by the grace of mana (primarily green mana), you can take an ordinary Tendo Ice Bridge and turn it into a murderer. Following are five angles to do just that.

A forerunner to the rest of this category, Natural Affinity may never have hit its real potential.

But one player who was dead set on bending the world to the wonders of Natural Affinity was our very own Brian David-Marshall. He called his deck "Paper," and in a world where Rebel decks were "Rock" (and numerous), Paper could produce a non-interactive combo kill.

Here's how it worked:

BDM used Skyshroud Claim and other mana ramping cards to put a lot of lands onto the battlefield. Meanwhile the Rebels opponent would be accumulating power himself, poised for the kill.

At the last possible moment (or whenever Brian had two Islands alongside enough other lands to make for a lethal swing), he would cast Natural Order and attack.

Skyshroud Claim

During the attack, before blockers were declared, BDM would Ensnare to tap all creatures (preferably the cheater cost); because his creatures were already tapped (from attacking), sailing would typically be smooth! And because the opponent was typically a mid-range creature deck without counterspells or disruption .... Did I mention sailing was meant to be smooth?

The problem with this strategy was that it only worked if the opponent was Rebels (or at least non-blue). Against a deck like Sigurd's (which we looked at above), a well-placed Counterspell (or an any-placed Rising Waters) could keep BDM from ever being capable of forwarding his plan.

But still, a forerunner to the good stuff.

These are all creatures that in some way or another turned Forests into characteristically green creatures of some sort.

Of the three, only Squirrel Wrangler was used primarily for the purpose of actually attacking the opponent, and then most memorably by the lovable curmudgeon Jon Becker in his Masques Block Constructed Mono-Green Quad–Predator, Flagship monstrosity The Lost World.

The other two creatures, ironically, were primarily used to destroy other people's lands. Sure, sometimes Kamahl, Fist of Krosa would go 1/1s-Overruns, but often he was paired with Goblin Sharpshooter. For her part, Jolrael was most often lined up next to Pernicious Deed.

Either legendary green land-animator can turn on a number of the opponent's lands (whether 1/1s or 3/3s, it doesn't matter) to set them up for a -activation Pernicious Deed. That is, unless they want to set up an attack.

I was trying to put together a pithy and punchy paragraph or so describing the interactions between Kamahl and Jolrael, but failed miserably. For an account of these legends dueling – piloted by Hall of Fame deck design god Ben Rubin, against the aforementioned Jonathan Becker—you might want to check out this feature match (with Day Two on the line), digitally penned by onetime Serious Fun columnist, The Ferrett.

The best of the Genju cycle was eerily reminiscent of Ball Lightning. It was like R&D was teasing us. No one at the time thought we would actually ever get Ball Frightening back.

The only Genju to make a significant contribution outside of Kamigawa Block, this card was a favorite finisher not just in beatdown Red Decks, but in Standard Blue-Red Magnivore decks around the time of the epic three-player team PTQ season following the first Pro Tour–Honolulu.

Genju of the Spires was quick and relatively resilient, and—against a mana-screwed opponent (the way 'Vore liked them)—a reliable, differently named way to end the game quickly. It was fast enough to play turn one against Counterspell decks, and because it wasn't named "Magnivore," Genju of the Spires gave 'Vore decks a way to win in the face of a resolved Cranial Extraction.

Nikolas Nygaard's Blue-Red 'Vore

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Rude Awakening is a surprising card that bridged its artifacts-dominated block for a further career as a one-of in Extended.

The card's primary claim to fame is that it isn't two mana (like Tarmogoyf), and therefore can't be Spell Snared; ultimately, a one-card win given sufficient mana.

Here's what it looks like in a Grand Prix winner starring Paul Cheon:

Paul Cheon's Previous Level Blue

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This one isn't even close.

The Clouded Mirror of Victory is simply one of the strongest creatures in the history of the game, inspiring at its debut a "what's better, Meloku the Clouded Mirror or Morphling" debate (at a time when Morphling was considered the second best creature of all time); Meloku the Clouded Mirror—though no Psychatog—eventually proved the better five-drop.

Meloku the Clouded Mirror was a favorite finisher in a number of strategies, spanning Gifts Ungiven to true control to tap-out control to 'Tron to the sideboards of combo decks to ... basically whatever deck could muster a single . There was a fair time when otherwise mono-green Beacon of Creation / Plow Under decks were splashing for Meloku the Clouded Mirror just because.

Meloku the Clouded Mirror made racing impossible for the opponent. Any stray land was as good as a Fog (and maybe better, against Genju of the Spires or Jackal Pups of some kind, like Hana Kamis). Meloku the Clouded Mirror allowed careful mages to play a progressive offensive game. Miss a land drop? Meloku the Clouded Mirror makes it all better. Naked Tendo Ice Bridge? Let Meloku the Clouded Mirror reset that counter. Land destruction opponents? They're not going to like this one bit.

But the truly awe-inspiring aspect to this card was its ability to simply "Fireball" the opponent out over one or two big attacks. Meloku the Clouded Mirror could himself chip away for two points a turn, but when it was time to get all fired up, 6 power would become immediately available by cashing in lands—and not even permanently—sometimes more.

Osyp Lebedowicz probably said it best: Tapping out for Keiga, the Tide Star or Meloku the Clouded Mirror was fine because it wasn't likely that whatever the opponent was going to do would be remotely as good, certainly not better.

The Clouded Mirror of Victory has mustered many impressive wins. Its first? The "skins game" Pro Tour–Philadelphia, not quite Meloku the Clouded Mirror's debut.

Gadiel Szleifer's Gifts Rock

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The Top (a.k.a. "Bottom") Five Ways Our Own Lands Attack Us

When we think of lands attacking, we think of a brawl from the Red Zone, a tapped animal, a bloodied opponent ... maybe with some trample mixed in. The difference is that instead of a regular animal such as a Stalking Tiger or Hidden Gibbons, our 3/3 creature has the words "Treetop Village" emblazoned across the top, and its card type is land.

However, sometimes our own lands betray us!

The nefarious planeswalker across the table did it!

And ....

And ....

It just sucks. Here are five cards that suck a lot at times like these.

Stench of Evil was a card that never really saw as much play as it deserved. It really didn't come onto the competitive radar until it was almost rotated away (about Spring of 1998). The Stench was, however, featured in one of my all-time favorite decks, a Bad Moon Beatdown deck played by onetime The Dojo boss Al Tran:

Al Tran's Bad Moon Beatdown

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At the time Al played this deck, Extended was dominated by White Weenie variants, primarily base-red-white PT Jank decks (it was novel to be able to play Savannah Lions and Lightning Bolts in Extended back then .... no one would have predicted a Standard renaissance of those cards, or functional reprints). So main-deck Stench of Evil backed by Demonic Consultation was quite the bomb.

You'll notice that in addition to erasing various Plains (and back then it was largely Tithe-driven Plateaus and the like), Stench of Evil also attacks the opponent for 1 point a pop.

Can you imagine anything more soul-crushing than the opponent casting Demonic Consultation for a one-of Stench of Evil in Game 1? Inglourious, if you know what I mean.

A Grey Ogre stapled to an Ankh of Mishra.

Basically, a jerk.

Zo-Zu the Punisher.

Zo-Zu the Punisher was a minority staple while he was legal, in both Kamigawa Block and Standard. Red decks liked to have the extra damage potential, especially at a time when players were all Kodama's Reach–happy (take that!).

Somewhat popular still with the EDH crowd, Zo-Zu the Punisher still forces players' lands to attack them for 2.

This Goblin is like anti-evolution.

R&D finally got it right, I mean really right, with a set like Zendikar. Players like to play lands, hit land drops .... That feels very natural. Sales, meet roof. Goodbye, roof.

Zo-Zu the Punisher? Punishes us for doing what is natural. He is like the ... I don't know ... "Self-hatred" is the closest thing I've got. Are you saying I shouldn't play this Tendo Ice Bridge? Because I was actually going to reset it next turn with Meloku the Clouded Mirror.

Dirty pool man, dirty pool.

I paint a picture of a first Pro Tour.

The year is 1996; the location, Dallas, Texas (or somewhere reasonably close to Dallas).

It was my first Pro Tour. I was starstruck, if you can believe it.

I roomed with Worth Wollpert, played almost the same deck as Chris Pikula (who made Top 4 at that event), and worked with Erik Lauer before anyone knew he was the best that deck design would likely have to offer, ever.

I was armed with Swamps.

Regular old Swamps had some holes in testing, so the Wollpert / Pikula ( / Flores!) "innovation" was to pair them with Lightning Bolts. This mix could get around things like Whirling Dervish and Circle of Protection: Black.

The opponent?

Matt Place.

(It is ironic in 2010 writing all these names because all of them but Pikula went on to work for Wizards of the Coast, including me, kind of.)

The deck?

His deck: The Deck.

Back and forth; Black Knight versus Serrated Arrows. Math. Don't overcommit, Mike.

Place moves for an end of turn Enlightened Tutor.

Circle of Protection: Black?

At my first Pro Tour, I would not be so lucky.

Karma was, in fact, a bitch.

Pikula: Top 4
Wollpert: Top 16
Flores: 134th

Speaking of Deadguys, an excellent burn spell—especially for its cost—named for an excellent man, and mage.

Chris Lachmann once said that Anathemancer was one of the best, most influential, cards ever printed ... before it ever even saw play.

Never before has a creature so influenced deck construction all around it. Though Five-Color Control decks would eventually "come back" to dominate at the U.S. and other National Championships, those decks were relatively quiet at Regionals, for fear of the Price of Progress with legs.

The amazing Anathemancer was ... inevitable. Without specialty cards like Runed Halo, it would have too many of a mage's lands attacking their controller, and probably get an attack for 2 in, too.

Okay Already ... The Top Five Lands That Actually Attack

Well, here they are!

I was tempted to run out Stalking Stones on this one (as a different card from this cycle finished number one in this category), but instead I decided to write a little bit about Spawning Pool, which was annoying and excellent in its time.

Spawning Pool was a card that was rarely correctly estimated; overestimated, never ... underestimated, also never. This was a card that sort of poked you for 1; poke, poke, POKE until you were dead. At the time that Spawning Pool was in Standard the first time around, black decks got to play with all kinds of Duress into, you know, Yawgmoth's Will (like four of them), but actually had to finish the game somehow. Your hand, your board position, your very soul was a ruin thanks to the black destruction and disruption cards, but your life total was a formality that actually had to be dealt with, and a duo of Spawning Pools seemed a fine solution.

Skittering Skirges and Phyrexian Negators could be bolted and blocked, but Spawning Pool's Drudge Skeletons–like self-defense kept it going when other threats would have given up and gone home. Really, a most insidious—and painful—way to win .... Kind of like death by papercut.

My All-time Favorite Spawning Pool Play

Me: Spawning Pool.
Him: Some kind of Jackal Pup.
Me: Swamp.
Him: Raze the Spawning Pool.
Me: DARK RITUAL, regenerate.

That may not seem like that hot a play (just exchanging a Dark Ritual for his Raze rather than the land itself) but think about it for a second; it was a beatdown.

Personally, I think this card was a bit overrated when it was legal in Standard ... But that didn't stop every conceivable deck from Elves to Merfolk to Faeries to, you know, Reveillark combo from playing it.

Overplayed? Probably, especially in the three-color decks ... but certainly one of the top lands that actually attacked. Mutavault continues to be played in Extended, not just in Faeries, but as a minority inclusion in beatdown decks like Naya Burn. Ubiquity means a lot.

Charles Gindy's Elves

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Jan Ruess's Merfolk

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Mutavault's Standard Pro Tour really was Mutavault's Standard Pro Tour. There were 8 Mutavaults in the Finals, 24 in the Top 8—six players playing all four. Again with the ubiquity!

Why do players forego an Island (or whatever) to play a land that can attack?

In the age of Mutavault, tribal considerations were more a part of the mix (for example, Faeries could activate Mutavault to boost a Spellstutter Sprite or set up a Mistbind Clique), but in the age of Mutavault version one point oh, the man land du jour was a costless way to win the game.

What do we mean by having no cost?

The decks of that era were constructed very differently from today's decks. Erhnam Djinn would have a hard time making the cut in 2010, but in 1996, it was fearsome attack creature. Control decks played extremely creature-poor, often winning with just a few Millstones and thus blanking the opponent's removal ... especially popular sorceries like Wrath of God or Balance. Spells—Counterspells and removal in particular—were superb, and cheap. Mishra's Factory gave these spell-centered decks an alternate way to win without investing in actual spells (to, you know, win).

George Baxter

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Baxter's deck was the Naya Lightsaber of the first Pro Tour. He didn't actually have Necropotence in his deck, but he did have an extremely powerful lineup of threat creatures. Baxter could ride a single Order of the Ebon Hand to a tremendous amount of damage against a white-blue or green-white deck, often demanding a Wrath of God for the Order alone; in a case like that, he could follow up for 2 points with Mishra's Factory post-Wrath of God while deciding what threat to follow up with ... and there were many.

For a long time, Blinkmoth Nexus felt like Mishra's Factory-lite. It is almost the same card, but a little bit smaller, a tiny bit less mana-efficient on the second ability. But over time, this little artifact has flown in for many a 1-point plink (and once in a blue moon even 2) ... but its contribution to more than just attacking for 1, in such a variety of decks, fulfilling a variety of synergies, has made this card a favorite from Affinity to a dozen different red decks.

Attacking for 10:

Pierre Canali's Affinity

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