A Good Man Goes to War

Posted in Top Decks on June 14, 2012

By Mike Flores

Special lands come in all different varieties. Sometimes they seem innocuous while pushing the envelope toward nuclear Armageddon superpowers (Polluted Delta), and other times they play like Rishadan Port, Wasteland, and Strip Mine—they aren't ambiguous at all on that whole "power level" thing; there is nothing vague about how they make Magicians miserable. Can you believe when I was playing my first PTQ they let you run four Strip Mines? And I didn't? Don't know which is worse...

Moorland Haunt | Art by James Paick

Now there is this whole other class of special lands.

You pick the right dance partner, manage to avoid manascrew, and get comfortable in your chair...

And you ain't goin' nowhere.

I am talking about high skill (or synergy) paths to inevitability: lands like Academy Ruins, Contested Cliffs, Dust Bowl, Karakas, Riptide Laboratory in formats past—or even Moorland Haunt in Standard today.

Do you remember the first time you got decked by an Academy Ruins? I hope for your sake you weren't decked by Mindslaver + Academy Ruins ("the implied win"). But surely you can imagine (1) never making another decision and (2) your opponent controlling your turn, every turn, forever, until you run out of cards (but your opponent doesn't on account of, you know, that there Academy Ruins).

Contested Cliffs was quite the splash of cold water (or beastly dog-breath 4/4 saliva) when it came out. Try keeping a little guy in play against a card like this, when the opponent's squad was all Ravenous Baloths, in an era when that was contending for best creature in the format. Yeah, yeah—you know going in you have to deal with quality drops, but I think the worst part was most decks had no direct answers to something as pedestrian as a land.

In today's Standard, Moorland Haunt is a fact of life. You plan to win a StarCityGames.com Open, Standard PTQ, or other large tournament? You have to be able to get past a bunch of free 1/1 white fliers. Moorland Haunt is like some great overnight interest package at the bank—it gets you more for what you were putting in anyway. It's a route to inevitability, a way to win when the opponent has nothing but point-removal and permission, and a fairly straightforward source of your third mana for Geist of Saint Traft on turn three. Still... what a control killer.

Bouncy castles like Karakas and Riptide Laboratory are largely products of their environments. They make you feel super smart when you get them in position. Ho ho, this cat thinks he's beating me with a fast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Derf derf! Tap my Knight of the Reliquary for Karakas!Riptide Laboratory might need a few more playmates, but the general idea is the same. It costs you so little and your opponent can do so little. I still don't get how that card wasn't legendary.

Dust Bowl, though. Wow this card Dust Bowl. I think the ANumberOne Cool Kids play of 1999–2001 was to innocently Vampiric Tutor at the end of the permission player's turn. Who throws away a card AND 2 life? I'll just counter whatever was got! You could almost imagine the inner dialogue on that.

Sure thing, brother.

Then you would get the not-spell Dust Bowl, proceed to destroy all your opponent's relevant nonbasic lands while fueling the thing with stuff like Yavimaya Elder, or small and chippy Yawgmoth's Wills (they let you include four), and generally feel really smart for a round while the Blue Mage sat there feeling miserable.

Yes, over the long decades of ever-increasingly awesome Magic: The Gathering, specialty lands have given us so much and asked so little. Mishra's Factory and Mutavault continue to prove workhorses of the Red Zone. A single Factory—or especially one with a buddy or three—can hold off an army in Legacy. And Mutavault? It's easy to lose count of all the shenanigans that little land was capable of. Probably the best was any time it islandwalked to kill a Merfolk player thanks to that player's own Lord of Atlantis.

Other times you have specialty lands whose very spell-like/not-spell-ness was what made them so helpful; like Mouth of Ronom when Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir was one of the most feared creatures in Standard. So... What you're saying is I can't cast spells (and you have a fist full of Rune Snags anyway)? Okay... K!ll yer st00pid Teferi.

There is this intuitive Difference That Makes the Difference around lands that basically every competent competitive player understands unconsciously but might not be able to articulate to someone else.

Put another way... are you mad that you have a Mouth of Ronom in your deck—or on the battlefield—in games where the opponent doesn't have Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir? It's not the same at all as having a Doom Blade against a Phyrexian Obliterator, is it? You can happily win a game using Moorland Haunt every turn, from turn two, casting a Runechanter's Pike, equipping a Runechanter's Pike, later end-of-turning a Midnight Haunting, paying the generic half on a Mana Leak... never making a 1/1 Spirit itself, maybe never even having a creature enter your graveyard from any position.

That, my dear readers, is the secret at the end of the lands-rainbow.

Many players don't consciously understand what the limiting factor of deck design is. It's the number sixty; as in, you only want to play sixty cards in your deck. If they let you play smaller amounts of cards, we all would. We would have completely different rules for mana balance and cantrips; likely our cards would get a hair cheaper.

Plains | Art by John Avon

Look at the best men of the current Standard, no matter the shift in Bonfires, Geists, Hauntings, Souls, Swords, Pikes, Stalkers, Leaks, and even Snags. Delver decks are unwavering in their four Delvers, four Snapcaster Mages, and four Ponders. Not only do they play the Maximum Number of their best cards, they play cards like Ponder to shrink their libraries to make it even more likely that they draw them.

And off to the side, in a stack of twenty-one or twenty-two, are these things called "lands".

Here's the thing: All decks—all successful decks—want to do something. They want to execute combo, jam you with either lots of little guys or one big guy. Usually they give you a chance to do something back: remove a creature, counter a spell.

Well what happens when you get to put your functionality into that stack of twenty-one or twenty-two off to the side? Instead of your spells? Two things really: (1) you have more room for awesome spells, because you get spell-like superpowers from the things that are ostensibly there to "just" tap for your operating mana and (2) oftentimes your opponent can't interact with your lands at all. The first signs of strategic genius from the young Jon Finkel came at Pro Tour Columbus 1996, when Jon added red to his white-blue deck; he could Stone Rain the other kids' powerful Thawing Glaciers or Kjeldoran Outpost while they could just watch him crush them.

Just think about a card like Moorland Haunt.

How many times have you killed all your opponent's creatures and still lost to a Moorland Haunt in the last six months?

Yeah, me too.

That's quite a bit of preamble to get to this point... but I was trying to make a point. Something that seems simple can be absolutely epic—if you put it on a land. Not just because lands are hard to deal with, but because they don't eat up any "spell" slots. Like Cathedral of War:

Cathedral of War is in both Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and Magic 2013. So if you go back to Max McCall's preview of Sublime Archangel earlier this week, something probably clicks for you... "It's not unusual for her to attack for the full 20."

Cathedral of War | Art by Kekai Kotaki

Exalted is cumulative!

Cathedral of War works by its lonesome, and it works with friends.

Let's look back on a little buddy of mine I liked designing with circa three years back, maybe the most popular exalted creature of all time, and a staple still in Modern, Extended, and Legacy:

Say you play one on turn one (let's say, off a plain old Forest)...

Then on turn two, you play another one...

...and Cathedral of War.

When you attack with your allegedly 0/1 first Noble Hierarch... ka-pow! 3!

...not bad for a 0/1 creature!

A couple of years back, there wasn't much scarier in Standard than attacking with exactly one creature when you had a bunch of others in play. Sovereigns of Lost Alara (often holding hands and singing songs with the aforementioned Noble Hierarch) would go and get your solo attacker Eldrazi Conscription to thump the opponent for 11+ extra damage.

It probably goes without saying that exalted has tangible, cost-able value... but Cathedral of War gives it to you for free, as long as you give up (maybe) one mana one turn. There was a time mages were happy to pay one for a Hierarch, but three for an Ardent Plea. I don't know what kind of exalted shenanigans are waiting in Magic 2013, but I'm guessing Sublime Archangel will have sufficient buddies to make things interesting.

Weren't playing at the height of the Alara Block? Cathedral of War has all kinds of potential synergies with stuff you are already familiar with. How about prentice day Infect? The Mono-Black Infect deck that was popular some months back doesn't really have one-drops (so the cost of running out a Cathedral of War on the first turn might have essentially no cost). You know, your Plague Stinger can now hit for two poison, sans enhancement. For free? That's a big upgrade for Infect!

Or what about the other end of the spectrum, with giant green creatures?

What happens when you go and grab a Cathedral of War with a Primeval Titan?

On its face, you can jump 6 power to 7 power, which down-shifts a four-turn clock to a three-turn clock. Something else cool is that your Primeval Titan on offense will be big enough to beat the other player's Primeval Titan in a head-to-head fight.

For that matter, there isn't anything stopping you from grabbing two Cathedrals and attacking. Surely your Birds of Paradise might want to fly in for 2?

No reason a trigger or so down the line your Titan isn't attacking for 10+ itself.

Geist of Saint Traft | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Remember what I said about exalted having value? You need to tap four lands to get the efficacy of one untapped Cathedral of War on the first swing. And what if you searched up two? Eventually all four? I think the comparison to Kessig Wolf Run is an interesting one; the Cathedral doesn't help you cast Rampant Growth if you play your cards in the wrong order early, but it is more efficient basically everywhen else. Wolf Run is "more powerful" given unending volumes of late-stage mana, but neither really contributes to color... Kessig Wolf Run in fact greedily demands red.

As with most things that are remotely fun in competitive Magic: The Gathering, Cathedral of War might find itself forcefully appropriated by the White-Blue Aggro-Control deck. Consider attacking with a solo Delver of Secrets creature; how about Geist of Saint Traft? Geist of Saint Traft is one of the scariest creatures in Standard on offense, but can be contained, if painfully, just by leaving back any old 2/2. Solemn Simulacrum... Huntmaster of the Fells... Borderland Ranger... It is always the value guys that seem to get thrown under the Geist bus.

Well what happens when Geist of Saint Traft is suddenly a 3/3?

Here's the obscene thing: The 4/4 Angel will still be attacking side-by-side!

Here's an even worse example: Hero of Bladehold.

Attack you with Hero of Bladehold.

Put Hero of Bladehold (battle cry) on the stack.

Put Hero of Bladehold (tokens) on the stack.

Put Cathedral of War (and other exalted effects) on the stack.

Hero of Bladehold gets +1/+1 (or however many exalteds).

Put two tokens onto the battlefield.

Resolve battle cry.

What the!?!

Forget about the fact that we started with 3 power, didn't actually play any spells, and ended up smacking for 8 (or more). Doesn't it seem a tad obscene to score with both exalted and battle cry in the same attack?

The last thing I want to address is Cathedral of War's hitting the battlefield tapped.

Cathedral of War looks so simple, but it really does seem like the kind of church you might want to end up worshiping at. Yes, it comes down tapped, but it can bring some amount of incremental damage and value, turn after turn after subsequent turn, essentially for free down the line.

I see that limitation—especially on a colorless land like this one—as a gigantic flashing neon sign; a sore thumb and a red flag: This card would be too good otherwise.

Compare it to Kabira Crossroads. Kabira Crossroads was positively spell-like; the kind of a land you would bring in to clean up a RDW fight after boards. Kabira Crossroads gave you 2 life... once. Cathedral of War "only" gives you 1 more potential damage, but it does so turn after turn after turn.

Really: The card would be too good otherwise.

I'm not convinced it's not there the way it is now!

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