Welcome to Gates Week, where we'll be talking about the common dual land cycle from the Return to Ravnica block. I already explained how they got designed during Return to Ravnica previews, so I decided to use this theme week to explore them from a different context. I often use this column to look at large holistic macro issues, but sometimes I like to do the opposite and give all the details I can on a very small micro issue. That issue today: the design of the common dual lands.

    Promised Lands

Before I jump into the meat of the issue, let me start by defining a term and explaining some of the parameters to the problem. When I say "dual land" I mean a land capable of tapping for exactly two different colors of mana (every once in a blue moon, a "dual" land will tap for three colors of mana, but we've never done that at common). Dual lands are done at common only in sets where multicolor plays a substantial role.

The parameters for duals lands at common are as such:

  • #1: We Have to Follow The Rules for Land Design
  • Back in 2003, I wrote an article entitled "This Land Is My Land," where I laid out the rules for land design. I'm going to hit the highlights here but please go and read it if you want more detail behind any of these rules. Here are the rules I laid out:

    • No Land Can Be "Strictly Better" Than a Basic Land
      This rule stems from the fact that we don't want to obsolete basic lands. It's especially important for dual lands because it says that, in order to make them, they have to have a drawback. As you will see, this will become very important.
    • Lands Must Produce Mana
      This has to do with land identity, but as dual lands are all about tapping for two colors of mana, it has zero impact in this discussion.
    • Lands Cannot Produce More Than One Mana
      This is a power-level concern that also will have no real impact here.
    • Lands That Produce Colored Mana Must Come in Cycles
      This rule means that we have to think in terms of five-card cycles when talking about dual lands. That's already how most players would think about it but that's because this rule goes all the way back to Alpha. (That's not true of all the rules, as some of them we used to break regularly.)
    • Lands Cannot Do Colored-Mana Abilities Without Requiring the Use of Colored Mana
      This is another rule that isn't going to matter with common duals, as we're going to have our hands full with the drawback.

Applying these rules to common dual lands, we get the following sub-rules:

  • Common Dual Lands Have to Have Some Kind of Drawback
  • Common Dual Lands Have to Appear In Cycles
  • #2: We Have to Follow The Rules for New World Order

Many years back, Ramp;D started using something we call New World Order. (Note that I am NOT referring to New New World Order, which was an April's Fool's joke.) In short, New World Order was a simplifying of commons to make the game easier to learn for new players. The deeper complexity was pushed up to the higher rarities. What this means for common dual land design is that it adds some more restrictions:

  • Must Be Easy to Understand
    This rule is going to become important in the discussion today because it becomes one of the biggest limiting factors of what's acceptable at common.
  • No Excess Bookkeeping
    This is the other big limitation. The biggest restriction of this rule is it takes lands that use counters out of the running. This might not seem like a big deal but once we dive in and see how restrictive the available space is, losing this design space will feel like a bigger deal.
  • No Memory Issues
    This rule doesn't have too much impact. It does mean we can't have lands that have to remember what happened the turn before. As most of those lands use counters these days as a memory tool, in many ways this rule is just another offshoot of the previous one.

The biggest impact of New World Order is that it's yet another thing that limits what options we have available. I often talk about how commons are the hardest cards to design. The reason this is true is because common cards have so many more restrictions placed upon them. Luckily, restrictions breed creativity, so this problem forced us to get creative.

  • #3: We Cannot Do Land Cycles That Have Been Defined at Other Rarities
  • Dual lands are a tricky thing in that we do them at every rarity save mythic rare. What this means for common dual land designs is that there are some things we cannot do, not for complexity reasons, but because certain dual land mechanics have been established over time at another rarity. If that previous rarity was uncommon, we can have a talk because, from time to time, we'll slide mechanics down a rarity, but if the cycle was at rare, then it's off limits to common.

    Dual Purposes

The reason I laid out all the restrictions first is I want you to understand the complex web of issues Ramp;D faces every time we try to make a common cycle of dual lands. Sometimes, the challenge of design is facing a blank white piece of paper where anything is possible. Other times, it's facing an avalanche of restrictions that hugely limit your options.

So where does one start when trying to solve the common-land-cycle issue? You begin where I always like to start by figuring out what your nonnegotiables are. A nonnegotiable is a constraint that you have to live with. The key to figuring out where a design stands is to first figure out what has to be done. These nonnegotiables will give you a basis to start building around.

Okay, what are the nonnegotiables for a common dual land cycle? I stated them up above. It has to produce exactly two colors of mana. It has to be part of a five-card cycle. It has to have a drawback. Of these three restrictions, the most restrictive is the drawback. That means it's the place for us to start. (By the way, that's a great rule of thumb for any design. Start with the part that's the most restrictive because you want to give that component the most freedom and it will help you define what the set will need, structurally.)

    Baby Got Drawback

What drawbacks are available for land? Let's examine them one by one:

  • Enter the Battlefield Tapped
    This is the gold standard for land drawbacks. It's simple, it's not texty, and players intuitively play it correctly. In addition, it's enough of a drawback that we have room to add a little something extra. It does have two major problems. One, it's the most used land drawback so it's a very mined vein of design. Two, it doesn't work well with more aggressive decks, as it slows down the early available mana.
  • Tap for Colorless
    A common drawback is to have the land tap for colorless. It's a big enough of a drawback that you get to add a positive ability to the land. As this is a dual land cycle, this drawback is off the table.
  • Use Every Other Turn
    This drawback usually has the land not untap the turn after it's used. The problem with this drawback is it either requires memory or counters. As this is a common cycle, we aren't eager to use either, so this drawback is out.
  • Limited Number of Uses
    This drawback usually has the card enter with a certain number of counters with each use requiring the removal of a counter. The use of counters takes this out of the running for common.
  • Requires Life Payment
    Sometimes the life payment comes when the card is played, while other times it's part of the cost of tapping the land. This is the second-most-used land drawback after "enters the battlefield tapped." The advantage of this drawback is it's easy to understand and not texty. The downside is that it's a payment that is unattractive to less-experienced players and thus not as ideal for common.
  • Nonlife Cost Required When Land Is Played
    This drawback has playing the land come with a cost (nonlife, as that's the previous category; I split them apart as life is used so often). That cost usually involves you sacrificing or boomeranging a permanent. Note the cost could involve any zone or any resource. This category tends to be on the more complex side, so this isn't a good fit for common dual lands.
  • Don't Provide Mana by Themselves
    This drawback has the card dependent on another card to work, making it a poor early land drop. This drawback is not synergistic with either dual lands or common.
  • Requires Another Permanent in Play
    This drawback is a variant of the last one except it has a larger impact on deck construction. It's also complex enough that we tend to not use it at common.
  • Filters Instead of Producing Mana
    This drawback has the land not produce mana but instead filter to get it. By filter, I mean that you spend any color or colorless mana and the card allows you to turn that mana into one of the two colors of the dual land. This is a pretty substantial drawback, as it gets you behind on mana. The other big strike against it it's a little more mentally taxing as it requires you have an additional land to be able to get your colored mana. This drawback isn't off limit for common, but we have to be careful with it because it can easily lead to confusion.

After examining all the options, here's what we're left with once we take out the things that aren't allowed at common:

  • Enter the Battlefield Tapped
  • Requires Life Payment
  • Filters Instead of Producing Mana

Not a long list, I know.

    Common Knowledge

The next thing one has to always look at when making common lands is what other lands are going to be in the set. In particular, as we are looking at dual lands, what other dual lands does the set have? That was an easy question for Return to Ravnica to answer because, from the very first day of Return to Ravnica design, the shocklands from the original Ravnica block were in the file.

The shocklands caused two major problems. First, they had a life payment option, which made using life payments at common a bit tricky ("enters the battlefield tapped" has a lot more design room than life payments). Second, the shocklands are essentially "enters the battlefield tapped" lands with a bonus (that bonus being you can override the limitation by paying 2 life), which caused a different problem.

You see, the baseline for "enters the battlefield tapped" lands are what are known as the tap lands from Invasion block. They were uncommon dual lands that simply entered the battlefield tapped. When looking for dual lands at common, the tap lands are always the place we start. They are a little on the weak side (although they do sometimes see tournament play) but they are the absolute simplest dual lands one can do at common.

The issue is what we in Ramp;D call a "strictly better" problem. Strictly better is a term we use to mean that one card is, in most reasonable cases, better than another. The classic example would be Lightning Bolt versus Shock.

Barring bending over backwards to concoct a scenario, Lightning Bolt is strictly better than Shock. Strictly better matters because the shocklands are strictly better than the tap lands. One, because they have an additional option to pay life to enter the battlefield untapped and, two, because they have basic land types, which the vast majority of the time (especially in Standard) is a positive.

Magic does strictly betters all the time. Card power is in flux and we make cards that are strictly better than other cards as a routine part of doing our business. Usually, though, we try to avoid it in the same set (although even that happens from time to time) and we especially try to avoid it when one of the cards is high profile. What this meant was that we felt printing common tap lands would create a negative reaction from the players because they compare so badly to the shocklands sitting in the set at rare.

We spent a little time looking at doing filtering instead of producing mana, but playtesting showed that a set with the gold percentage as high as Return to Ravnica really wanted straight-up mana production. If you glance up above, you'll realize that this really only left "enters the battlefield tapped" lands (ETBT lands) as the sole viable option.

    "Itty Bitty" (ETBT)

Here's what we knew: We wanted to have common dual lands that entered the battlefield tapped. There was enough room, both in power and text space, to have one ability. What should that ability be?

I often talk about doing blue sky design where we try to come up with things we've never done before. Other times, like this one, you start not with the unknown but with the known. What ETBT lands with an upside have we made?

The Refuges (aka the Life Duals) from Zendikar

This cycle of ETBT dual lands had the controller gain 1 life. It was about as simple as ETBT dual lands can be. It had been done at uncommon in Zendikar but we felt we could push it down to common if necessary.

The Snow Duals from Coldsnap

This cycle of ETBT dual lands has the bonus of being a supertype, in this case snow. Now, snow lands don't work for Ravnica but it did put the supertype (and subtype) option into the back of our brains. This will obviously be important.

The Creature Duals from Worldwake

This cycle of ETBT dual lands has the bonus of the lands being able to turn into creatures. This was a rare cycle, so it's highly unlikely we'd ever drop it all the way down to common for both Limited and complexity reasons.

The Tri-Lands from Shards of Alara

You could think of this cycle as being an ETBT dual land cycle where the bonus is the availability of a third color of mana. Obviously, as Return to Ravnica block was all about two-color guild identity, this cycle wouldn't fit. I've included it more out of being thorough. Usually, when design does research, we want to see everything, even things that might be a little off the beaten path. Sometimes bad ideas are stepping stones to good ideas.

And that's all the ETBT dual lands we've done. We continue our research with other dual lands that have simple riders.

The Conditional Lands from Core Sets and Innistrad

These are dual lands (two cycles from different sets) that enter the battlefield tapped unless a condition is met—in this case, a basic land on the battlefield of an appropriate color. They're on the simple side but not exactly ETBT duals. Both cycles were done at rare so, again, it's unlikely we would do these at common.

The Reveal Duals from Lorwyn

This cycle is much like the last in that it requires a condition to avoid entering tapped. In this case, the condition is revealing a card with the appropriate creature type. Again, this cycle is rare and thus not a good candidate for common.

The "Karoo" Lands from Ravnica block

This is the common dual cycle from the original Ravnica block. They have the advantage of being named for Ravnica but Ramp;D didn't want to use them for various reasons. First, and most importantly, development felt they were too good for Limited. Second, we were already bringing back the shocklands and didn't want all the lands to be reprints And third, these lands predate New World Order and are a bit complicated for common.

So after doing all our research, we got the following options :

  1. We could use the life lands from Zendikar and move them down from uncommon to common.
  2. We could make use of a supertype or subtype, although not snow.
  3. We could suck it up and just use the Invasion tap lands and just accept the shocklands as being "strictly better" in the same set.
  4. We could come up with a new option that we have never done before.

We talked about how the life lands contrasted against the life payment of the shocklands. We tried to design new options. We talked and talked about the problem but we weren't finding a solution.

One day, we decided to use one of our Card Crafting meetings to talk about the problem. We explained that we had searched and searched and hadn't found a new solution to the problem. What if we just did the tap lands? How would Ramp;D feel about that? Many of Ramp;D strongly disliked the tap land option. At one point, Zac Hill spoke up and said, "What if we just made up a new subtype and then made some cards to make it matter mechanically?"

The room went quiet as everyone kind of looked around. Doug Beyer spoke up and said we could probably tie the subtype into the guilds. He talked about how each had a gate leading into its area. Hmm, gates. We hadn't thought about using cards in the set to help set apart the ETBT common duals lands from the shocklands. It just might work. We left that meeting with the idea of gates and never looked back.

    Closing the Gates

I often talk about the big picture stories of design but the little pictures take up much of our time—if not the majority. We agonized over this problem for months. I hope my article today gave you a little insight into all the things that went into solving this problem. As always, I would love to hear your take on our solution. Did you like it or would you have preferred a different solution? Drop me an email, join the thread, or contact me in social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+). I want to know.

That's all for today. Join me next week when we start Modern Masters previews and I talk about one of my favorite things.

Until then, may you sometimes think small.

    Drive to Work #34—Future Sight, Part 3

Today's podcast is the third and final look into the design of Future Sight. Today, I talk about the many cycles that were put into the set.


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Working for Magic Ramp;D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.